Leaves

Lucy Caldwell
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs
(2007)

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Lucy Caldwell is a lucky lady. Leaves is the 25-year-old from Belfast's first play and she has managed to get a production at two famous theatres, the Druid in Galway and the Court.

The creative team under director Garry Hines is as good as it gets with West End and Broadway credits including The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

To top it all, Leaves has already won the George Devine Award and shared the Susan Smith Blackburn, the latter with three more female playwrights including two others from the Emerald Isle, Abbie Spallen for Pumpgirl and Stella Feehily for O Go My Man.

The first part of the play is like a mystery story, albeit set in an ordinary family, with clues as to the nature of a problem dripped out slowly. The Murdoch family really does seem like a nuclear archetype. Father is a writer with a passion for Irish nomenclature. Mother is a housewife and they have two normal, if floral daughters, Clover and Poppy, 15 and 11 respectively, who seem intelligent and enjoy noisy argument.

There is however another unseen daughter, Lori, who is about to return bringing with her some dark secret. Her full name is Dolores or sorrow and that leads us into the knowledge that this nineteen-year-old is returning from a clinic. She was there having tried to kill herself with a bottle of pills.

The bulk of this 110 minute drama is set in a Belfast that, unlike the family, is beyond the worst of its Troubles. The drama shows the impact of Lori's awful depression on her family and briefly and not entirely successfully tries to show the mindset that leads to a desire to end life so early.

Lucy Caldwell has a real talent for writing believable dialogue for women of all ages. Poppy, played by the prodigious and very funny Alana Brennan (sharing the part with Daisy Maguire), perfectly conveys the frustrations of being a youngest daughter. Both her mother Phyllis, the superb Fiona Bell and earnest sister played by Penelope Maguire, try to protect each other and hold the family together but suffer terribly from Lori's affliction.

Matters get considerably worse when the sulky, uncommunicative girl, played by Kathy Rose O'Brien, turns up and mixes doom and gloom with odd, unexpected rays of sunshine. In some ways, she is like her introspective dad (Conor Lovett) but with a big difference. He has no wish to end his life.

Leaves contains some fine acting and a high level of realism that makes one wonder whether there is an element of autobiography at play. Miss Caldwell eventually tries too many variations on the same theme, showing us the family without really entering Lori's mind. What is clear is that she is beyond saving and will try and try again until she commits suicide.

It is only in the final filmic flashback, set a few months earlier on the eve of Lori's departure for University "across the water", that we see what has been destroyed. This was a normal, loving family that knew how to be happy.

Leaves demonstrates a real talent but eventually, the unremitting gloom becomes a little too much, especially as the central figure of Lori remains a lacuna. Keep an eye out for Lucy Caldwell though: she will be back and should have a great future in theatre - unless she forsakes the stage for a more lucrative medium.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher