Thursday, August 04, 2022

Carson and the Lady – humour, history and theatricality without slipping into soap opera (Lyric Theatre until Saturday 6 August)

Michael Cameron’s play Carson and the Lady begins as a rather neatly crafted drawing room play, set in 1914, in Antrim Castle, the home of Lord and Lady Massereene. Ethel Gillingham is dusting and preparing for a busy day at the castle. She’s a loyal servant in more than one way, though her propensity to say what she’s thinking does provoke her Ladyship.

Ethyl’s below stairs relationship with manservant Thomas Ballentine has not gone unnoticed. While he has worked for the Massereene family since childhood, his republican leanings and wish to see the English upper class return to England bring him into conflict with both his employer and his sweetheart.

There’s a joke that begins: What’s the first sign of madness? The reply: Suggs coming up the driveway. Well Ballentine is faced with Lord Edward Carson – Ned to the Lady of the household – coming up towards the castle in which he lives and works, along with 3,000 men from the Ulster Volunteer Force. Madness indeed, some might say.

The dialogue between the cast of four bounces brightly to and fro. Rosie Barry delivers delightful not so under-her-breath asides along with raised eyebrows and facial expressions while maid Ethel stands to attention in the background of scenes. Conor O’Donnell’s Ballentine can’t help but be outspoken, challenging the Massereene’s political views with his desire for freedom.

Rosie McClelland establishes Lady Massereene as flamboyant, unconventional, and quite the flirt. Lord Carson is played by James Doran as a self-reflective statesman, a man of substance and charm, open to learn. 

That openness is severely tested after the interval when the calendar has rolled forward to 1921 and Evan Morgan, the colourful 2nd Viscount Tredegar (played by O’Connell), shimmies onto the stage to conduct a séance at the behest of Lady Massereene. Her broad interest in spirituality and ghost hunts in the grounds of the castle are evidenced in history. Ding dong. That’s Lord Carson at the door. The forced collision of Evan and Carson’s worldviews in the one evening, even for dramatic effect, is quite a lot to swallow, though the risk mostly pays off.

Towards the end of the first act, Carson’s outdoor speech is ingeniously staged and enhanced by the audio effect as he addresses the UVF men – the unsuspecting audience – assembled for inspection. Live music improves most performances and McClelland’s rendition of The Lass of Aughrim accompanied by Barry on the drawing room Steinway piano is a lovely moment within the second half.

Historical theatre is hard to pull off. Particularly when the history is contested. But Cameron has a lightness of touch in his writing that combines humour and history, and director Colm G Doran keeps a sense of theatricality rather than soap opera as the cast convey the essence of Carson and educate about the role of Lady Massereene in her local community and within unionism.

Carson and the Lady continues in the Lyric Theatre until Saturday 6 August.

Production shots: Brian Thompson

Enjoyed this review? Why click on the Buy Me a Tea button!

No comments: