Madeira – Viking Theatre, Dublin

Reviewer: Louise Tallon

Writer: Michael J. Harnett

Director: Vinnie McCabe

Dublin Touring Theatre’s play Madeira, The Secrets of Sisters, reunites the artistic collaboration which made a huge success of The Cloudspotter. In place of Callum Maxwell, however, this time renowned actress Geraldine Plunkett joins the cast.

Set and costume designer, Marie Tierney, invokes the elegant milieu of Bewleys Café where we’re introduced to genteel spinsters Betty and Angela having tea. The former is bristly and chides her bewildered sister as “never (having been) very good at listening” or “never (having been) very good around the house”. Betty is embittered by having had to look “after Mummy” when “the maid was gone after the business failed”, while her fashionista sibling was off “buying fabrics and travelling the world”.

It’s a measure of Deirdre Monaghan’s talent and the textured portrayal of her character that despite Betty’s grumbling persona, we like her and feel pity towards her situation. Plunkett is succinct as the beautifully groomed and well-bred but kindly Angela.

In one of the ties that bind them, after Betty and Angela have left for home “to start writing things down”, another set of sisters occupy the café table they’ve vacated. In contrast to the quiet refinement of the previous occupants, Lu and Mona share an irreverent and bawdy wit. The latter is a mother of twins and separated from Martin who was “the spit of the aul fella” while Lu is a grandmother to Taylor Marie and a dissatisfied wife to pigeon keeper Tommy.

Brenda Brooks is lively and spirited in the role of Mona. Unlike Betty, she won’t have her father’s care foisted upon her. Mona doesn’t tolerate Tommy’s treatment of Lu and convinces her older sister to join her on a holiday to Spain. In her second turn of the evening, Monaghan plays the part of a tired and harassed Lu, with her poignant backstory, to perfection.

Having recently bumped into each other after a distance of years, the final scene sees Mona visit with Angela in the study of her beautiful Victorian Villa on North Circular Road. They reminisce of times past when Mona’s mother worked as a cleaner for Angela’s family. Sisters Lu and Betty are referenced in laughter and sadness respectively. Alone at her desk, heart-sick but hopeful for the future, Plunkett as Angela skillfully closes the show on a humorous note.

Brooks, Monaghan and Plunkett are outstanding. Jamie Brunty is a happy addition as a waiter in the café. The appearance of the stage with sepia tinted photographs and impeccably accrued set pieces creates just the right ambiance. Music by Daniel Soro and Liam Lonergan is a suitably evocative accompaniment to proceedings.

However, although Michael J.Hartnett is a prizewinning playwright with a commendable list of credits to his name, Madeira feels unpolished. Dialogue is difficult to write and to be fair this play is all discourse and no action, but it’s hard to imagine someone saying “in the glow of the electric fire” during the course of normal conversation, for example.

Vinnie McCabe’s direction for the production is excellent other than the decision to have Monaghan play the parts of both Betty and Lu. While the actress is superb in her roles, and although likely done for practical reasons, it results in confusion for the audience. Given the now obvious physical likeness between Betty and Lu, the fact that Lu’s mother was in the employ of Betty’s father who enjoyed “his decanters of whisky” and “his club on Stephens Green”, there is the suggestion of a stronger connection between the two sets of sister’s which goes unfulfilled.

In terms of dramatic effect, I wonder if the final scene would have had more impact if Betty was to have just hinted at her predicament rather than reveal it entirely during the first scene.

Isn’t it also a cliché to characterise Lu and Mona as trainer wearing, working class Catholics, pregnant out of wedlock, married to good-for-nothing husbands, with names like ‘Taylor Marie’ for their children and drug dealing in the family, whose mother was a cleaner for the wealthy Protestants in “the big house” where the “maids came up from the country” and ‘Papa’ puffed on his pipe? Instead of going home after their coffee as Betty and Angela do, they go to a pub, “Let’s get out of here, let’s get a drink”. But then, perhaps the same stereotypes are used over and over again because they are perceived to be true?

Despite the few considerations above, this was an enjoyable 65 minutes. To have three actresses of this calibre together on stage is a rare treat. The name of the play stems from the fact that the mother of each set of sisters liked to order madeira cake along with their tea or coffee in Bewley’s Café and while you might not find these particular refreshments at the Viking Theatre, you’re welcome to imbibe a tipple from Connolly’s Pub downstairs throughout the show.

Runs Until 11th May 2024.

The Review's Hub Score

Tremendous Cast

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The Reviews Hub - Ireland

The Ireland team is currently under the editorship of Laura Marriott. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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