The Pride of Parnell Street

Sebastian Barry
Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn

Publicity photo

Irish company Fishamble has commissioned a powerful play that is part love story, part metaphor for the problems that have beset Ireland.

The biggest surprise is the identity of the playwright. Sebastian Barry has made his name with historical dramas featuring members of his own family. By way of contrast, Conor MacPherson (or for that matter Brian Friel) specialises in interlinked monologues that slowly reveal Irish lives.

In The Pride of Parnell Street, Barry demonstrates that he is very nearly as good as the young master at this singular art form.

The Bradys may be dirt poor Dubliners but with three little children and a steady income from Joe's career as a midday man they are happy. Speaking in 1999, Mary Murray playing Janet conveys the love that she feels for a man whose shortcomings are all too apparent. Despite his marginally glorified title, Joe has never had a job and lives by stealing from cars.

Unusually, their life together is destroyed by football. While Jackie Charlton's legendary team strode from success to success in 1990, so did the family. However, when they lost in the World Cup, the family - and, by extension, - the country fell apart. Gentle Joe became a monster, beating his wife to a pulp and received an exclusion order followed by a lengthy prison sentence as a result.

We first meet the man of the family lying in a hospital bed in a secure institution. The tale of how he got there is one of several interlinked strands of this clever play.

Even in prison, where he had every right to rage against the woman who prevented him from seeing his children, love shines and with it comes forgiveness and understanding.

On the other side, Janet tells horrible tales about the deaths of both her son and father in a community where violence and early death are commonplace. However, when she speaks of Joe, it is generally with an affection, though she finds it much harder to speak well of his mother.

What starts as a tale of love and then moves into hellish breakdown then develops further. Having assured listeners of his honesty, Joe comes clean as he colourfully begins to portray life as a skaghead, or, in more common parlance, heroin addict.

It is all that this dying man, touchingly brought to life by Karl Shiels, can do to totter away from his hospital bed. When he does so, we see a tattooed skinhead.

This is the kind of man that one might cross the street to avoid but Sebastian Barry's major achievement is to portray him sympathetically, particularly when he is talking lovingly of the beauty that he married, whom he claims could almost have been "a fillum star".

Whether the sentimental conclusion would have occurred in real life might be open to question, but as a member of the hidden underclass dies on the brink of the millennium, it is perhaps good to end the play with a note of hope.

Under Jim Culleton's sure direction, the two actors give their all and bring us an opportunity to meet those whom most theatregoers never will. These may not be the most articulate of people, though they are possibly more so than they ought to be. Even so, they speak with a kind of rhythmic poetry of the streets painting verbal pictures; and the tale that they tell is never less than gripping.

Until 22nd September

Reviewer: Philip Fisher