Writer: Tim Foley
Director: Tom O’Brien
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Taking a train, a ferry and two buses to arrive at his parents’ remote home in Northern Ireland, Johnny is greeted by three invisible dogs and a mother who barks at him louder than any of them. So begins Tim Foley’s debut full-length play, which becomes a harsh and bruising study of a family living with schizophrenia and of the cross-generational effects of that condition.
The play is described as a “dark comedy”, but, although there are humorous touches, it has an overriding bleakness which often belies the comedy tag. The Old Red Lion seems to have become a magnet for interesting new writing and its compact configuration is perfect for a claustrophobic domestic drama such as this. Libby Todd’s set is an austere kitchen, the centrepiece of the home of a family reduced to frugal living as a consequence of illness.
“Mam” has become reclusive, selfish, dependant on medication and she does little more than brood or sleep in her armchair, pampering her beloved dogs. Maggie O’Brien plays her as tormented and resentful, her pent-up anger being released in tirades of vicious and irrational abuse towards her husband and son.
Her long-suffering husband (Paul Stonehouse) is her carer, his motivation being duty born out of staunch Catholicism more than real affection. He claims to see the dogs which are invisible to Johnny, but maybe he does so just to pander to his wife. A neighbour (Melanie McHugh) also sees the dogs, but could she be imaginary? Certainly imagined is Cleopatra (McHugh again), who toys flirtatiously with Johnny when he slips into his alter ego of the mighty Caesar.
Richard Southgate’s Johnny is uncertain and afraid. He debates with himself whether what he sees as the onset of mental illness comes from nature or nurture. Trying desperately to deny a genetic link, he goes back to childhood incidents, memories of which his mother uses to torment him cruelly, and thinks of words heard and misinterpreted in order to explain his delusions. Most obviously, he connects them to a computer game with which he has become obsessed and the play asks us to consider the links between virtual reality and insanity.
Foley’s play meanders at times before finding its purpose and some early scenes could benefit from trimming, but Tom O’Brien’s tight production comes strongly to the boil in two explosive second act scenes. The drama draws heavily from the symbolism of the dogs, teasing us with what is real and what is imagined, what is normal and what is madness. Johnny doubts his sanity when he cannot see the dogs, but then neither can we, the audience.
Runs until 20th June