Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Dear Arabella – the importance of the simple acts of kindness (Lyric Theatre until 10 November) #belfest2018

Last night’s world premiere of Marie Jones new play Dear Arabella opened the 2018 Belfast International Arts Festival. The last few Marie Jones shows on the Lyric Theatre stage have been brash and outrageous – Sinners, Christmas Eve Can Kill You, Mistletoe and Crime – but while there’s still room for funny lines, her latest work is much more stripped back and serious.

Three half-hour monologues are delivered straight to the audience by three experienced actors, reminiscing about different perspectives on one summer afternoon in 1960’s Northern Ireland when life changed for three women.

It’s a tale about the power of simple unplanned gestures to unlock new possibilities in other people’s lives, single encounters that unwittingly empower previously-trapped canaries to escape their prison cages and find ways to soar, free from the baggage of family and long-held frustrations.

Jean lives on the dark side of the street, physically and emotionally. Jones’ flair for sharp, social observation emerges through the affliction bingo that can be played with those living in the odd numbers of working class Rockhammer Street. So often cast in comedic roles, Katie Tumelty proves her versatility as she explains the series of events that led to her escape from caring for her infirm, fly-swatting mother to travel by train to the bright side of a beach and an encounter how the other half live. There’s no room for stumbles and Tumelty gives the script the flowing rhythm it needs and her eye contact with the audience is rewarded with equal measure of mirth and sympathy.

When Elsie rises to speak, an unexpected gift of hospitality on a train is unpacked to reveal how she is living under the shadow of the state of her marriage and the pain of Second World War service locked into her emotionally vacant husband. Laura Hughes tells a beautiful tale about working in a Belfast picture house and brings to life her character’s greater sense of self-reflection and adaptability.

Later it’s the turn of becardiganed Arabella, Jean’s eventual one-sided pen pal. Living in the big white house looking down on the beach, Lucia McAnespie has been given a pronounced English accept that jars with the fact this is her family home and she never left this island’s shores. Her mimicking of Dorcas the cleaner’s accent is done to perfection. And though they’ve never met, the danger of the sea provides a loose but sufficient link between widowed Arabella and Elsie, completing the circle.

Peter McKintosh’s set with its tiled wooden circle hovering above an azure floor – like an island floating in the sea – is as elegant as the structure of the play. The wide seascape stretched across the full width of the stage provides a canvass onto which lighting designer Tim Mitchell can project a mesmerising, ever-changing array of clouds and sunsets.

Jones’ pen writes turns of phrase that reek of Belfast: “playing the piano like she was beating the dust out of her carpet”. However, it’ll be empathy rather than laughter that will cause you to shed a tear during the 95 minute performance.

Unless you need a kick up the backside to stop burdening other people with your own choices, this probably isn’t a life-changing piece of theatre for the audience. Though I could be wrong.

As a piece of art, Dear Arabella is a beautiful thing. Though that means it risks being an ornament left to sit on a shelf.

Dear Arabella is the type of well-crafted play that English Literature classes will dissect in years to come. It’s like a satisfying short story or novella, and director Lindsay Posner delicately tip toes through the production avoiding unnecessary performance embellishments that would distract from the script that has been pared back to remove complexity and leave its central theme exposed: we have such little insight into how important our day-to-day interactions with other people can turn out to be.

One afternoon, three women, barriers broken as water provides rebirth and new life.

Dear Arabella plays as part of Belfast International Arts Festival in the Lyric Theatre until 10 November.

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