Writer: Lorraine Mullaney
Director: Fumi Gomez
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
What would you sacrifice for your family? Anything you’re probably thinking, but that’s all very well in theory, when it comes to specifics you might not be so keen. Lorraine Mullaney’s new play Body & Blood set in 1956 considers the sacrifices young women in rural Ireland were frequently asked to make by their loved ones in order to preserve the good name of the family.
As the play opens Aileen has come to London in search of her errant sister who has run away from an arranged marriage to a much older local farmer. Staying with her Uncle Colm who moved to the city years before, Aileen’s eyes are opened to the freedoms of England with drinking, jiving and barman Jimmy to test her Catholic modesty. But her mother, Pegeen, is hot on her heels, and she’s not prepared to lose another daughter.
Mullaney’s 65-minute play has created a cast of genuinely fascinating and engaging characters, whose lives are vividly created from the start. Although many of the tropes are quite stereotypical – repressed Catholicism, dancing, singing and drinking – Mullaney taps into an unknown and surprising aspect of modern history, the semi-arranged marriage and continuing restrictions on young women long after the Second World War ended.
Throughout the play, there is a strong sense of old and new colliding, as the traditional society of rural Ireland with its gossipy old ladies and expectations of duty crashes up against the personal freedoms of London. The way in which these two elements are shown as both external and internal influences on Aileen is well realised and makes her a sympathetic lead.
Less successful is the creation of the male characters who, despite having a lot of potential, are never given a chance to reveal the drivers of their behaviour. Aside from the rom-com plot with Aileen, Jimmy and Uncle Colm have a prior friendship that is only hinted at, while the irritability of Colm and his reasons for coming to the UK aren’t fully explored. Neither man will countenance a return to their homeland, which is an opportunity to understand Aileen’s decision and the level of sacrifice she is asked to make.
Pamela Flanagan’s Aileen is a charming country girl shocked by the freedoms of the city but with a hint of rebellion that takes firm hold as the plot develops. Flanagan shows the constant debate within Aileen well and she elicits considerable sympathy for her dilemma. JB Newman’s channels James Dean as free-spirit Jimmy whose light-hearted approach to life betrays a sense that he’s running from something we never hear about, but his affection for Aileen, while a little cheesy, is nicely played.
Luke McGibney as Colm and Sorcha Brooks as Pegeen add considerable flavour to their much smaller roles, which makes them almost more intriguing than the leads. McGibney suggests a hidden life for Colm that could be better explored in the text, but he is an interesting presence throughout who could be better utilised, while Brooks treads a careful line between outright comedy and a more emotional drama as the manipulative mother afraid of the local gossips, who has her own history of arranged marriage and social snobbery to offer.
Mullaney’s play is a great framework for a detailed and unique exploration of Irish immigration the UK and the particularly unsavoury choices foisted on young women in this era. With a few tweaks to the characters of Colm and Jimmy, and perhaps the superfluous long final scene, it could also speak to its wider consequences for masculinity and the individual search for personal identity that led people to leave their home and look for it elsewhere.
Runs until 12 July 2017 | Image: Contributed