THE DRY HOUSE at the Marylebone Theatre
“The play feels old-fashioned, both in style and in theme”
The concept is simple, if bleak. Claire (Kathy Kiera Clarke) must feed her alcoholic sister Chrissy (Mairead McKinley) four cans of beer over the course of the morning, in order to stabilise her enough to get to a rehabilitation clinic. As the story develops, we also meet the ghost, or vision, of Chrissy’s teenage daughter, Heather (Carla Langley). These three women discuss, debate and disagree over their lives, their truths, and the future.
The idea is strong, and the performances are solid. McKinley is particularly powerful as the woman on the edge, ranting and raving from her sofa chair, and breaking down completely. We’re all familiar with Clarke’s comic chops, from her beloved role as Aunt Sarah in Derry Girls, but she proves more than able to tackle this darker material, navigating the complexity of Claire’s repression and perfectionism well.
The problem is with O’Hare’s script. There is no build, and little is held back. We learn within the first minute intimate details of how Chrissy’s alcoholism has been exacerbated by the death of her daughter. There is little more to learn. Claire and Heather both have long monologues, explaining their own secrets, but in Heather’s case it feels tangential. The monologues take us out of the claustrophobic room, where Claire is trapped with her drunk and volatile sister, and into an ether land, where the audience exists and is directly addressed. It’s a shame to reveal facts this way, as it loses that complex resentful intimacy between the sisters, which is by far the most interesting part of the play.
The designer, Niall McKeever, has lent into that claustrophobia, and the set is Chrissy’s chaotic mess of a sitting room. The stage itself, a glowing letterbox set far back into in the wall, makes the room feel as cramped as the situation these women are in.
The lighting, designed by Robbie Butler, begins mostly naturalistic, coming from lamps in the room. However, it shifts when Heather is on stage, nodding to the supernatural. As Chrissy’s situation brightens, the lighting design becomes more symbolic, something which the ending leans into.
The play feels old-fashioned, both in style and in theme. Much of what’s discussed feels familiar, especially a disconnected diatribe about kindness on the internet. Ghostly Heather’s monologue is preachy – constantly talking about what could have been and what might be. Having her look back from beyond the grave clangs against the gritty realism of Chrissy’s situation. The musical motif of Coldplay’s Fix You not only adds to the generally dated feel, but also gives Chrissy’s very real struggle a saccharine edge.
There is however, a completely fantastic moment where Heather says that being dead is much like being alive, except for a low hum in your left ear. This is pure genius, and I wish there had been more of this fresh weirdness in the play, which could have freed it from familiarity.
The characters are dealt with empathetically, and there are shining moments within this piece, but overall, it is held back by a lack of subtlety and tonal variety.
Reviewed on 6th April 2023
by Auriol Reddaway
Photography by Manuel Harlan
Previously reviewed by Auriol: