“All three actors are at their best as Liam, lively and energetic and sad”
In rural Ireland, three friends meet to commemorate something that happened 17 years ago – the death of their mate Liam. But none of them are 17 anymore, and the night is a mix of memory and present day revelations. It’s supposed to be a big one – 17 years later, and 17 when he died, but the rest of the lads are in town for the birthday of someone none of them know, and only Pa, Barry and Cusack show up to mark the anniversary. Still, they line up the cans, Pa passes out the drugs and they get the darts out.
The whole play (set and costume design by Naomi Faughnan) is set in the shack they used to go to, the gang of them, when they were teenagers. There’s a single flashing strip light (lighting design Zia Bergin-Holly), empty beer cans, faded deck chairs, candles, a table the wrong way up, a bed and mattress separated on either side of the room. It’s a claustrophobic space, and outside all we can hear is rain pouring down (sound design Peter Power).
Occasionally the pace is too slow, and the piece as a whole does feel longer than it needs to be. But the actors help to carry it through. Rhys Dunlop plays Pa, perhaps the character most in pain, still reeling, apparently living more in the past than in any kind of future. He delivers a particularly moving performance as the story unfolds. Barry is played by Colin Campbell, again another very convincing performance, whilst Conor Madden plays Cusack, the new father of the group, who has some lovely moments although begins acting drunk too early which makes the mid-point of his performance feel repetitive.
Each actor takes a turn to morph into Liam and deliver a monologue in three pieces which tells the story of what really happened the night he died. All three actors are at their best as Liam, lively and energetic and sad.
Flights, written by John O’Donovan and directed here by Thomas Martin is a poignant play about grief and about male friendships. It’s about the way that people change as they get older, set in an Ireland none of them are quite ready to leave.
“moments of brilliance bounce straight into the laps of the audience”
Alison Carr’s intricate and confident drama, exploring all the complexities of being and feeling vulnerable, the restrictive definitions of femininity and womanhood, and feeling trapped by your circumstance, delivers across the board. Its pace escalates as the plot thickens, handled expertly by a strong cast of three, and moments of brilliance bounce straight into the laps of the audience.
We enter to washes of sea sounds, setting the scene of this uniquely English seaside town. Jac Cooper’s sound design is exactly what this production needs – the soundscapes launch Claire’s opening monologue into an optimistic stratosphere, and later underscoring at climaxes of tension immerses the audience in the characters’ distress. Carr cleverly and subtly weaves in the darkness that is revealed more clearly in the second half of the play, with double meanings and seemingly offhand remarks. This is the sign of a writer who cares about discussing people in detail. Beginning with Claire’s end is utterly bittersweet and careful. Later, when her mother Maeve defends her daughter’s character, we believe her words, having seen Claire articulate what she feels like when she is free. This makes the play’s slow twist all the more crushing – Claire’s actions are not so difficult to understand. The hard issues in Caterpillar are never portrayed crassly.
Judith Amsenga delivers a stoic performance as Claire. She disrupts any camaraderie between Maeve and Simon with jarringly harsh remarks, and is relentlessly difficult to like. At times, this was played too extremely – but director Yasmeen Arden’s decision to go too far rather than not far enough is what the piece needs. Simon’s twisted speech about the spotlessness of his deceased ‘girlfriend’ later brings home how necessary it is to have overtly dislikeable, but still wroughtly complex, female characters. It’s a challenge to audiences, who are used to women quietly holding the fort, while other people and things – including their own self esteem and mental health – have the freedom to crumble around them. Maeve, a single parent, and Claire, an unhappy mother, battle one another because they have forever been fighting the war of expectation; of what society wants from them, and says will make them happy.
Tricia Kelly’s emotional range as Maeve is riveting. She cuts through the play with excellent comic timing, which mixes in with her own quiet suffering, as she recovers from a stroke. Kelly holds the stage when on the phone to her son-in-law and grandson, and her intonation and physical flair are entrancing to watch. Maeve pressures herself to keep a clean, lighthearted and welcoming home environment, which she extends to her guest at the b&b. Alan Mahon peels back Simon’s layers to reveal an altogether more sinister core beneath his battered hang-glider. His own low self-esteem, again deftly introduced by Carr in his first conversation with Claire about a reservation mix-up through her front door, causes him to fetishise and idealise women, to seek those who are vulnerable in order to strengthen his own ego. It’s close to the bone, but it’s not unfamiliar. The best scenes occur when Simon plays alongside each of the women. These jousting matches are well-placed in the play, and Arden plots them well in the space.
Holly Pigott’s set and costume design is a harmony of sunny brights and pastels, which beautifully highlights and offsets the stage action. Some needed space is niftily created by way of a further entrance/exit, taking the characters ‘outside’ – both an escape from their claustrophobia, and a reminder of it. Ben Jacobs’ lighting design is sensual and considerate. Lighting the seaside wooden cage around the stage with LEDs is a master touch. Arden has measured and weighed every line and motion of Caterpillar, and when it is at its best, it’s hard to look away. Caterpillar is at once searingly modern and strikingly timeless, a necessary drama for now.