Writer: Caitríona Daly
Director: Maisie Lee
Reviewer: Ciarán Leinster
Lunchtime theatre has made a welcome return to Bewley’s on Grafton Street with an intense, ambiguous production that allows actors Karen Ardiff (Phil) and Caoimhe O’Malley (Helen) to flourish in their respective roles as mother and girlfriend to an unseen man with autism, Gary. While the play does not quite live up to its desire “to ask and answer questions about the role of people living with autism in modern Ireland” it is extremely affecting and thoughtful.
The story begins just as a disastrous birthday party has finished, with Phil and Helen cleaning up and taking it in turns to have jabs at each other. Bewley’s is perfect for this setting, being a café. The fact that the stage is hardly raised further anchors the play in reality. The audience see the points of contention in the women’s relationship, which circulate around who is to be the greater influence in Gary’s life – the cautious, weary Phil, or Helen, who seems determined to help him live a “normal” life. This is despite the regular distressing incidents, which Phil repeatedly mentions.
The two women are given roughly equal time to vent their fears, experiences, and worries, and at the end it is by no means clear who is deserving of greater sympathy. Ardiff plays the role with perfect exasperation and self-pity, while O’Malley is practically vibrating with anxiety. Both women have clearly been through a huge amount of emotional strain in their two-year relationship, although effective moments of tenderness and care are often evident.
The problem with the piece is the stated intention – it fails to answer its own questions. A play about autism where there are no characters with autism depicted is an issue.
This is an intense portrait of two women in an incredibly stressful relationship, and it does raise some of the issues surrounding the lives of people who care for people with autism, but it does not shed enough light on the topic.
However Normal is an impressive piece in its own right, and a fine way to reopen this venue.
Runs until 28 April 2018 | Image: Contributed