The Devil’s in the Chair
Reviewed – 6th February 2022
“It’s a heavy mix but delivered with a light flavour so it never appears overcrowded”
The ‘Bitesize Festival’ currently running at Riverside Studios is a programme of selected play-readings and comedy, showcasing new material. The name speaks for itself, reinforced by the theatre’s website: ‘Sometimes you just want to experience theatre in bite size pieces. We understand… each performance is an hour or shorter. And each is guaranteed to move, excite and entertain you’.
“The Devil’s in the Chair”, the new play from Eoin McAndrew, boldly flouts the criteria by running at just a little under two hours. Thankfully, though, McAndrew meets the other criteria with his moving and entertaining portrayal of a Northern Irish family brought, somewhat reluctantly, together for Christmas in a remote cottage in rural Donegal. An actor, comedian and writer, McAndrew is a member of the BBC Comedy Writers Room and the Royal Court Theatre’s International Playwriting Group; both accolades evidenced by the sharp dialogue he gives to the dysfunctional characters of this new piece. Adopting the powerful story telling technique of Conor McPherson, with hints of Martin McDonagh’s ‘Leenane’ trilogy, McAndrew lets his own voice come through.
Without fanfare, the cast wander onto the stage before the houselights fade and introduce themselves and the characters they are about to present. Like the other showcases at the festival, the audience are required to build the set in their own minds, aided by (perhaps unnecessary in this case) spoken stage directions from the cast. With script in hand, the five strong ensemble paint a vivid portrait of the world this family inhabit.
Saoirse (Amanda Hurwitz) is the maternal figure, not particularly liked by her three sons, who is grudgingly dragged to the backwater when she would clearly rather be back at home watching re-runs of the ‘Father Ted’ Christmas Special. The well-intentioned but misjudged family reunion is instigated by city-worker and aspiring novelist Liam (Niall McNamee) while Jamie (Matthew Duckett) wallows in self-medication, self-pity and alcohol following a, perhaps, self-induced car accident and Darragh (Cavan Clarke) is trying to rebuild his life, not helped by his siblings who are all too ready to knock him back down like fledgling bullies kicking sandcastles on the beach. This sounds like hellish company in which to spend two hours on a Sunday evening, but the natural empathy of the performers, coupled with the affectionate and sympathetic naturalism of the script make these characters quite likeable. A view initially shared by the outsider Ellen (Emma McDonald), the cottage’s proprietress who repeatedly pops over to see if everything’s alright. She soon learns that it isn’t.
Many themes are tackled including, among others, alcoholism, Catholicism, mental health, suicide, child abuse, lies and betrayal, family obligations. It’s a heavy mix but delivered with a light flavour so it never appears overcrowded. The humour simultaneously brings relief to the gravity of the situation but impels us also to lodge the issue in our heads to consider later. But for the time being the entertainment value of McAndrew’s writing draws us into a very quirky and dark soap opera.
Being a reading rather than a fully staged drama, however, the cast obviously haven’t had the luxury of time to grow into their characters. And initially there are signs of maybe not quite enough read-throughs before the piece is unveiled to the public. But once in their stride, the cast wring out the emotions and we definitely feel the impact of the play’s potential. Watch out for the title; I’m sure we’ll be seeing it again soon.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
The Devil’s in the Chair
Riverside Studios as part of Bitesize Festival
Previously reviewed at this venue: