The Talk of the Town at the P.A.C

October 28, 2013


There’s a lot for non-aficionados to enjoy in this biopic of Maeve Brennan, the oft forgotten Irish wordsmith and dilettante.

There are biting exchanges of the Algonquin set, some of the finest short story writers, journalists and cartoonists the world has ever known, whose lives tilted on their own drunken and lustful axis. There’s Peter O Brien’s marvellous period costume, which, like Paul O Mahony’s moveable three suite set, come undone as Brennan’s psyche unravels and her art and artifice fractures, a mess of Martini glasses, strewn papers and chaffing confetti a visual hangover from the flightiness of excess.

There’s a lively jazz score from Philip Stewart that taunts and titillates, capturing not only the spirit of the period, but also the restless flow of the lady herself. And, of course, there are the wonderful words penned by Brennan, framed here as memories of another life, the writing of which is an act of self-harm, a painful excision which will eventually cost her her sanity.

The toast of 50s New York thanks to her columns in the New Yorker – sharply drawn observations on the city that buzzed around her, and her short stories, where she cannibalised her Irish childhood until there was nothing left to dredge up, she burnt out, dying alone in a nursing home at the age of 76 after years wandering from one hotel to another.

Tapping away at her typewriter, staring into her mind’s eye (a mirror that opens up to a past touchingly acted out by Barry Barnes and Michelle Forbes), the loneliness, apathy, disappointment and bitterness which flowed through her writing is touched upon in extracts recited by Walker.

The problem with this production is that it doesn’t have anything new to say about Brennan. Focusing on her golden years and how her Irish foundations impeded on them, Emma Donoghue’s script shows us the torment that comes with genius, the assault on the senses that is writers block and poses questions about the price one pays for living two lives, their inner self and their work life. But it’s caught up in the hurly-burly of Annabelle Comyn’s vivacious direction that it never pauses to give us any real clear picture of the lady herself. Your left with the feeling of being given a lively enactment of second-hand news, with the characters in her present tarted up as caricatures of their age.

Catherine Walker is stunning but stunted in a role that is all affected presence lacking soul. While it would be untrue to say that the whole production was unfeeling, it certainly over leant on the supports of its lavish production values and period details.

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