Friday, November 14, 2014

Unhome ... a dark and deeply unsettling play by Tinderbox ... in the MAC until 22 November

Unhome is a new play by Jimmy McAleavey that explores what it’s like to no longer feel secure in your home and your mind?

Since her mother’s death and her father’s failure to cope, Kitty (played by Clare McMahon) has been brought up by her Granny Cait (Helena Bereen). The pair have a complicated relationship. Cait communicates through long-form story telling. Conversations frequently descend to frivolous wordplay slams as each vies to outdo the other with rhyming phrases and twisted retorts. There is a neediness – on both sides – with an active yet homebound grandmother increasingly relying on the presence and help from her young relation.
“The world is sick with dreams.”
Kitty is now in her twenties with a good job and fanciful dreams of going to drama school and living in a posh area of London. (It’s only really in the second half that the drama’s location is finally placed in north Belfast and Ardoyne.) The sale of her mother’s home is nearly agreed and her financial security almost guaranteed. Yet Kitty no longer feels at home in Cait’s house and is suddenly hit by a mental breakdown which her doctor describes as “a chemical imbalance in the brain”. More worryingly, she no longer feels at home in her own self.

Tinderbox Theatre Company previously staged Summertime in the MAC this time last year and Unhome certainly pushes further some of the themes of that disturbing play to the extent it makes Raymond Briggs’ When The Wind Blows nuclear fallout story feel like a rom-com.

The action takes place in the claustrophobic environment of Cait’s front room. There’s shivering and jumping in seats as the shadowy lighting and the porous walls in Ciaran Bagnall’s set allows characters to come and go unnoticed. Actors Miche Doherty and Seamus O’Hara bring a physical presence to the sinister voices that succeed in unsettling the audience as their words rattle around Kitty’s head.

Appropriate for the mood and subject of the play, clouds move across the stage as the light streaming in through the set’s front window changes between acts. Watch out for some beautiful silhouettes created by Simon Bird’s lighting design as actors stand in doorways.

As the dark figures mercilessly prey on the young girl, an angel briefly appears to pray with her. But even this fleeting hope is quickly extinguished as the male voices from Kitty’s past become more personal and menacing. The audience watch and wonder whether Kitty will have the inner-resilience to remain alive? And what will be the toll on Cait?
“If you could tell me what it is I could take it …”
Unhome is absolutely exhausting to watch and with the dark play running for more than two hours (with interval) it felt too long. At times Justin Yang’s background soundtrack was less than ambient, jerking into earshot rather than gradually looming into the audience’s subconscious. Perhaps that will settle down during the run. If you’re playing Belfast theatre bingo, then put a big cross through translucent wallpaper, chalk and ghosts.

While the drama may accurately portray psychosis and auditory hallucinations, the near total absence of happiness and joie de vivre sucks all enjoyment out of the piece – much like the Death Eaters in the Harry Potter novel Kitty is reading – and left me feeling sick and gloomy rather than satisfied and challenged. The acting is strong, and Michael Duke’s direction makes it nearly impossible to emotionally detach from Clare McMahon’s despair and torment as she struggles with mental illness.
“Every home is a house of horrors”

Last night’s opening clashed with the first episode in the new series of The Fall. Northern Irish noir drama is absolutely in vogue, but very strong language, adult themes and a couple of sinister men you wouldn’t want to meet up a dark Hill Street may will put some people off watching this play.

Unhome runs upstairs in the MAC until 22 November. Tickets (£12-£17). If you’re under 25 you can take advantage of the £5 ticket offer by calling the box office on 028 9023 5053.

Production shots by Neil Harrison Photography.

No comments: