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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Home Place
Comedy Theatre      Summer 2005

For this thoughtful study on the interplay of politics, ethnicity and identity, Brian Friel takes Chekhov as his starting point (he's worked on a few translations in recent years) with all those familiar motifs of country estate, generations old and new, and the visitor from the "big city".

The history of Ireland in the decades leading up to independence being his particular interest, there is a distinct departure from the Russian's own world viewpoint.

In fact, the political clouds looming over this estate in the Plantation of Ulster are foreboding to say the least. English landlord Christopher Gore (Tom Courtenay) presides over a cosy fiefdom that is being fast eclipsed by the greater events taking place beyond this sleepy corner of Galway.

The traditional English and Anglo-Irish upper classes are about to get their come-uppance as the dispossessed "pure" Irish take their lead from the emancipation movements in the rest of Europe to reclaim their colonised land and culture.

Christopher knows this is coming, as do his son and heir David (Hugh O'Conor) and their attractive housekeeper Margaret O'Donnell (Derbhle Crotty).

Friel's genius is showing how circumstances dictate that the long past that has created the unity of this household is not enough to ensure its survival beyond the walls of the house.

Matters are put even into even sharper focus with the arrival from England of Christopher's cousin Dr Richard Gore (Nick Dunning), who is buzzing with the latest ideas of eugenics and theories of anthropological superiority.

He does not endear himself to the local political activists, led by the fiery Con Doherty ( Adam Fergus), when he forces his cousin to assemble impoverished members of the nearby village to be measured and photographed as fodder for his racist propaganda.

Director Adrian Noble is uneasy with the Irish setting, the period and his cast in equal measure, and Peter McKintosh's claustrophobic, grimly static set of drawing room interior with ranks of trees outside does not help.

Noble singularly fails to unite the personal and the historical strands in Friel's multi-layered piece and so one is left having to work things out for oneself.

He particularly makes a hash of the crucial final scene where the decision of each character over where their future lies is precisely dependent upon an understanding of this interplay.

As performers, then, the cast are left to their own devices. Laura Jane Laughlin is captivating and funny as the mouthy maid Sally Cavanagh, and Harry Towb gives a larger than life cameo as local choirmaster Clement O'Donnell - his inebriated ramblings proving a subtle vehicle for presenting Ireland's cultural maturity to a sceptical Richard.

The others, though just as capable, are unable to make much of an impression, although Nick Dunning's English cousin earns deserved laughs at the chilling logic of his elevated prejudices.

Ah yes, and there's Tom Courtenay. Well, he has always ploughed his own stylistic furrow over a long and distinguished career - the tics, left-field inflections and awkward physicality his audiences have either loved or leaved.

Lamentably, inexplicably unchecked as they are by the director here, the mannerisms take over and the result is that Courtenay's Christopher appears to be continually drunk or suffering a degenerate nervous disease.

Either way it is unfortunate. Played at such an intensity, the actor has nowhere to go and so he fails to convey any sense of the gradual disintegration of Christopher's world, surely the pivot of Friel's play.

Nick Awde

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Review of The Home Place - Comedy Theatre 2005

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