Sunday, September 11, 2022

The Gap Year: a travelling troika pack up their troubles in an old campervan and drive, drive, drive (Lyric Theatre until Sunday 25 September)

Part of Kate is lost when her husband Joe drops dead. Her friends gather round. A notion of a weekend of pampering in a Fermanagh resort turns into a year-long tour around Ireland’s counties with fellow sixty-somethings Oonagh and Roisin. They might all be trying to escape troubles at home, but their absences leave gaps in other people’s lives that catch up with the trio while out on the road.

Clare McMahon’s previous writing for stage has often focussed the experiences of younger women. But The Gap Year shows her adeptness at conjuring up characters not often seen on stage.

The minor personae are exceptionally-well observed. When have you ever seen a mono-syllabic grandad (Frankie McCafferty) given a key plot point in a play? Keith Singleton oozes empathy and charisma as he flits between a camp activity manager, a footloose flirt, and a drag artist with some home truths for Kate who thinks she knows best. A video vignette from Matthew Cavan and a blast of No More Tears/Enough is Enough cements the women’s sense of growing self-awareness.

But in a play that examines the experience of women, it’s the characters that Meghan Tyler breathes life and verve into that make such an impact. A young nun with a lifetime of loss already under her belt. A jilted woman in a night club at Christmas with a perspective on what makes a good partner that Kate needs to hear. And finally Tyler’s arrival on stage after the interval as Kate’s daughter Catherine, allowing the emotional tide to come in and wet the toes of the rapt audience.

What could have been another funny ode to the menopause, or a mere observation of grief, turns into something more poignant and significant. The Gap Year gives voice to ambition and longing and a need for relevance that does not have to diminish with age or dwindling health. The travelling troika discover that they don’t have to abandon helping other people they meet along the way in order to take precious time for themselves.

Carol Moore’s Kate veers from rage to rapport in a masterclass of emotions. Marion O’Dwyer enjoys her moments of wild abandon and the front of van banter, while Libby Smyth feels very authentic in her portrayal of someone living with and adapting to a dementia diagnosis. That may make The Gap Year sound terribly serious, but the audience yell and cheer, their roars of laughter interrupting the action at many points.

It’s the small things that can make such a difference in a production. Stuart Marshall’s oversized castor-fitted scenery and props allow choreographed scene changes with a mere twist by in character cast members. Some of the revolutionary revelations are given extra impetus by Garth McConaghie’s interstitial jingles. The campervan is a particular triumph.

Benjamin Gould’s direction values small gestures. At one point, O’Dwyer simply walks on with ruffled hair and wordlessly conveys at least half a page of dialogue. The quality of this cast would allow the sometimes meandering first half of Clare McMahon’s script to be pruned back. While the various stop off points on the road trip definitely built up the central characters’ backstory, the dialogue could either be thinned or perhaps somewhere like Knock could be struck off their itinerary. That said, the payoff in the much shorter second half is pacy and satisfyingly constructed.

To get around diary clashes, I attended one of the weekend socially-distanced performances. Because people were sitting in their bubbles with space around them, it seemed to free them to discuss the show with their friends or family as it progressed. A whisper unfortunately carries a long way in a theatre. And the lure of seemingly empty rows tempted some to switch seats during the interval, which may have upset those who’d chosen to pay for the privilege of being too close to other members of the audience.

The Gap Year is an entertaining and punchy main stage debut for an up-and-coming playwright. It’s also an example of the fruit of the Lyric’s new playwrights programme: starting out with a simple reading in 2019, appearing in audio format during lockdown in 2020, and then further developed for this season’s three-week run.

You can hop onboard the campervan and enjoy The Gap Year in association with Commedia of Errors at the Lyric Theatre until Sunday 25 September.

Photo credit: Ciaran Bagnall

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