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 The Theatreguide.London Review


There Came a Gypsy Riding
Almeida Theatre Winter-Spring 2007

Frank McGuinness's new play is a poetic and evocative study in love and grief, and also probably the funniest play about death you're ever likely to see.

An Irish family - parents and adult son and daughter - assemble at a beach house where, two years ago, another son killed himself. It is clear from the start that none of the four have fully come to grips with the tragedy, or even with the process of mourning, and in the course of the play we watch them make the first steps toward the healing power of grief.

Mother has bottled down her emotions so tightly under the seal of carrying on as usual that an explosion into near-madness is inevitable. Father has done what fathers do, keeping his feelings hidden even from himself as he tries to be strong. And son and daughter, starving for the release of open grieving, are barely holding themselves together.

Being Irish, they bicker and fight with a violence that would be frightening if their love for each other weren't so palpable. Being Irish, they express themselves in a rich and evocative poetry that always threatens to (and occasionally does) go over the top into bathos. Being Irish, they express their darkest feelings with a mordant wit that is as inventive as it is hilarious.

And, being Irish, their playwright loves them all, wishes them well, and invites us to rejoice in the small steps toward emotional health that he guides them through.

Under Michael Attenborough's skilled direction, the production boasts at least two performances that are not likely to be bettered this year.

As the mother, Imelda Staunton displays a range from steely hardness to explosive loss of control, making every spot on that continuum real and deeply moving.

McGuinness gives her a back story of rising from village poverty and ignorance to a university lectureship to explain both her strength and her lapses into weakness, and Staunton plays all those notes to create a rich and full characterisation.

Matching her accomplishment is Eileen Atkins as the somewhat dotty distant cousin and neighbour who can switch in an instant from singing old rock'n'roll songs, to telling bizarre anecdotes whose most surprising aspect is that they actually have a point, to dropping an emotional bombshell at exactly the wrong - or perhaps, given that her dottiness has method in it - exactly the right moment.

There is a scene near the end of the play when her character has been banished from the house to sit at one side of the stage staring at the sea while the others talk inside. All the action is on their side of the stage, but so immersed in reality is Atkins that you will be watching her just sitting there.

Ian McElhinney as father and Elaine Cassidy and Aidan McArdle as the surviving children provide solid support, all contributing to the play's warmth, humour and touching beauty.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - There Came a Gypsy Riding - Almeida 2007