Wednesday, 30 April 2014

THEATRE REVIEW: The Kitchen, The Bedroom And The Grave

Our final theatrical retrospective this week is a tale of two journeys, one more painful and eye-opening than the other

The blurb for Donal O'Hagan's tightly-woven, compellingly acted and expressive The Kitchen, The Bedroom And The Grave indicates that its central character, an up-and-coming journalist happy with his life in London, will be "forced out from behind his camera" once he is asked to return to his Belfast home and shoot a documentary on the changing face of Northern Ireland.

But what sort of "forcing out" lies in store for Dempsey, played by Jason McLaughlin? Is it that of his own secrets, that of his family secrets, or is it from the bubble he has created for himself, as most journalists are wont to do in their working lives? Truth is, it's all three.

Dempsey first emerges onto stage looking like a lost traveller, while six small TV screens statically fizzle on our left. An English lady named Alesha (Angela Kiire) then appears on screen to tell our clearly worried lead that he "has a real chance" with the documentary he is prepararing, and insists that he keeps her in the loop. She is one of at least ten screen performers who provide differing views on the nature of Irish locality and how they believe it will affect them.

It is a strong backdrop and not an irrelevant sideshow to the main narrative, which really begins when Dempsey throws himself into the arms of Mark, played by Cillian O'Sullivan as a more humorous, relaxed variance of his 6Degrees alter-ego. McLaughlin and O'Sullivan seem so at ease as a gay Catholic journalist and a gay Protestant shrink, respectively; their early exchanges are laced with semi-camp comedy and amusingly cryptic psychology.

These conservations all take place in the "bedroom" of the title. But where is the "kitchen"? It is where Dempsey's parents, Tom (Noel McGee) and Martha (Maggie Cronin, once of BBC's Doctors), are seen discussing journalism themselves, what with Martha being Ulster Tatler's columnist of the year. Like mother, like son. Except Tom is not overly impressed by opinionated journalists, who he regards as "jumped up scribblers writing down their opinions as if they were Moses writing the Commandments from 11 to 20." Why, Tom thinks, should anyone care what goes on in someone else's marriage? More worrying to Tom is the very existence of Dempsey's documentary, which he believes is being restricted by commercial needs.

But Martha is equally worried, if not more so; she doubts Tom's very integrity due to his moods. He's become worried, irritable and is forgetting things - all indicators of Alzheimer's or dementia! Ironically, a disease is killing Tom, but it is neither of the aforementioned. He has instead been struck down by incurable cancer which will see him on the way to the titular grave. Therefore he prides himself on the "confusion and disorganisation" in his life, as Dempsey puts it; it keeps him busy, as a state of mind Tom uses to conceal the illness that is actually killing him.

With Tom eager to retain patriarchal control, Martha is just as keen to mask what she is really feeling by just getting on with life. Everything foreshadows an eventual emotional explosion. By the time Dempsey is scheduled to record his own thoughts about his homeland, his mind is blank, the product of a tearful soul struck down by fright and frustration. It is down to Mark, and his scene-stealing Seth Rogan-esque expressions, to cheer him up, and O'Sullivan is more than up to the task.

Cut to the Linenhall Library in Belfast, Tom and Dempsey playing chess, and an incisive exploration of the father-son dynamic. Why, for example, would the father be exceptionally keen for the son to stay at home when the son is truly loving life by himself? It is about more than simply familial love, it is about having someone to confide in, to share secrets with; and, in an extremely cynical move, to help provide the self-assurance he so desires in a situation where he is too frightened to tell his own wife the truth about his terminal illness. Typically, Tom relays story after story to Dempsey to convince him, and us, that he's doing the right thing, but he's fooling no-one.

And it is testament to the skill of O'Hagan, director Richard Lavery and the cast that while the illness is the centrepiece of the plot, it is not heavy-handedly highlighted, instead treated with a dignified gloom that slowly creeps into everyone's conversations. The conversation over the chessboard, in particular, is so engrossing that we forget about the game in hand - and so do the characters.

What could then easily veer into a strange mix of soapy family drama and lame pseudo documentary instead becomes something more interesting and hard-hitting. Among Dempsey's various interviewees, one businessman (Conor Maguire) comes across as driven, optimistic but hugely misguided. Two youngsters (Domhnall Herdman and Conor Doran) can't wait to get out of the country. And a young Irishwoman (The Clearing's Megan Armitage), the third child of three, views her life as disappointing, yet remains convinced she, and everyone else, will bounce back. These vox populi are just some of the voices that mirror the contrasting mindsets of the play's characters, all of whom find themselves caught in the expected emotional meltdown that occurs when all the play's secrets are out in the open.

In an especially heated exchange, Dempsey tells Mark: "You analyse other people to avoid analysing yourself", before Mark retaliates with "You hide behind your cameras and one-liners." Unfair, maybe even a little over-the-top, but not insignificant. Just how far can our work go in masking our personality defects? Tom's suggestion to a now-fully-in-the-know Martha that he is better taking his life is met with equal horror and derision: "Do you not love me enough to stay?" she wails. The truth is, nothing scares Tom more than "the thought of leaving (Martha)" - it is just that he, as the patriarch, does not believe in burdening either her or Dempsey with his vulnerability and pain.

As Tom meets his end, the family has been through an emotional mess as varied as the series of opinions in Dempsey's documentary. It has been a tale of two journeys for Dempsey, one more significantly hurtful than the other.

Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Meehan at Accidental Theatre. For more information on The Kitchen, The Bedroom And The Grave and other Accidental Theatre productions, check out their official website.