Saturday, 17 May 2014

THEATRE REVIEW: Thirteen Steps

Power struggles meet familial heartbreak in Patsy Durnin's historical play

After spinning a comedic shirt factory yarn in last year's Tillies, Derry-Londonderry historian and writer Patsy Durnin has journeyed even further back in time for his latest project, to the "workhouses" of the 1830s and 1840s. Most of his new play, Thirteen Steps, takes place in the first operational "workhouse" in Ulster, which opened in Derry in 1840.

These buildings were the direct result of the Irish Poor Law Act 1838, which introduced the first piece of government welfare legislation for poverty relief in Ireland. No man, woman or child who climbed the titular steps from the outside world to poverty declaration could sink any lower down the proverbial pauper's ladder; the workhouses were specifically designed to be as irksome and unwelcoming as humanly possible. An ugly atmosphere that Durnin attempts to encapsulate in a mere ninety minutes of humour, heartbreak and class divisions.

Thirteen Steps, a Playhouse Theatre production, begins by illustrating its solemn tone rather skilfully. The image of a lost, lonely little girl, a la Les Miserables, adorns the play's poster. Cardboard plaques hang in the air over centre stage, representing the graves of those who perished at the hands of feverish workhouse conditions. Murky lighting, ominous chanting, gloomy strings, a delicate soprano voice and a superb rotating set carefully highlight what is, or could be, in store for the unfortunate workers in front of us; and how apathetic or cruel those in power are.

For, despite the tragic backdrop, which revolves around the hideous mistreatment of two families, Thirteen Steps is really about power. Rather than endow us with a "poverty porn" approach, Durnin, director Kieran Griffiths, the cast and crew have gone for "tragedy as a slice of life" alongside an interesting and sometimes darkly amusing commentary on the chilling abuse and misuse of control bestowed upon both masters and porters by even higher authorities.

The porter of the Derry workhouse (a very good Peter Davidson) is a detached, irresponsible drunk, Wildean selfishness infesting his treatment of "paupers" and those he claims to love and work with. Sean Coyle's Major Bush (subtle, no?) takes pride in inspecting female workers with a threatening gaze and in taunting the male "grave diggers" who can't live up to his standards. And Sir Robert, played boisterously by Bill Waters, seems less keen about applying the best rules and regulations for paupers than upholding the high-profile reputation of him and his committee. It's a classic case of "every man for himself": do the right thing, but only if it suits your needs.

Amongst those struggling to survive at the bottom of the ladder, and even those subservient to the "leaders", we find instances of selflessness and positivity to contrast with those of selfishness and cynicism. In the first act, the gruelling new life of John Connors (an effective Micheal McDaid) paints, albeit fleetingly, a compelling picture of how to deal with family separation and unwanted work in the best possible manner.

John's daughter Eileen (ten-year-old Roisin O'Doherty) seems more fortunate than her father, her precocious charm and curiosity endearing her to a set of extremely troubled female workers. Eileen's rather touching "bonding" moment with a blind labourer (Rachel Melaugh) starkly precedes a shattering "family reunion" for both her and her father, which paves the way for a taut, revelatory second act.

By that point, Durnin's intention is clear; a tale of power struggle with elements of familial heartbreak and light comedy. But in spite of these admirable goals, seams do show when Thirteen Steps is considered as a whole. The introduction of another suffering family in the final half hour seems, to me, little more than a sideshow for dominant dialogue from the workhouse hierarchy. (That they are mentioned only by name doesn't help.)

More detractingly, perhaps, the conditions of the time are not delved into deeply enough. Like in Tillies, the personalities in the play overtake the setting and create a situation for Durnin that is less about the history and more about his story. Still, it is a story worth telling, and the quality of the production values, the acting and Kristine Donnan's rich score lend the narrative an expressive theatrical resonance.

Thirteen Steps runs at Derry-Londonderry's Playhouse Theatre until Saturday May 17. For more information, click here.


Michael Way said...

Glad you enjoyed it, shame you missed or closing night, it was the best!