The Water Orchard – Project Arts Centre, Dublin

Writer: Eoghan Quinn
Director: Dan Colley and Eoghan Quinn
Reviewer: Sarah Hoover

Collapsing Horse embarks on an exploration of “comedy with sad bits” (Sonya Kelly) in The Water Orchard, bringing projection, puppetry, presentation and above all energy into the surreal story of a family struggling with change. Colley and Quinn have worked hard at their comedy, assisted by a dedicated young cast and development team whose intensity, like the white paint they wear as masks, brings their characters beyond the real and into the archetypical – and the surreal.

This theatre company knows how to play. From the beginning, The Water Orchard sets up a space in which the rules are unknown and evolving. Maddy (a hat-and-blanket puppet voiced by Eleanor Methven and skilfully evoked by the cast) is interrogated by a projection whose ‘voice’ is clashing percussion and whose attitude is distinctly disrespectful. “We’re under a time pressure here”, the projection tells her, “and you’ve been keeping secrets.” Maddy’s secrets have undermined her family’s financial security and their water orchard, source of the intoxicating 78′ Vintage, is now dead and buried under the snow. Now the family is divided between needing to change (daughter Noelle intends to turn the huge antique house into a weekend resort for newlyweds) and, as Maddy puts it, conservation. “Things don’t get better by changing. Things get better by not degrading.”

The production cuts between Maddy and the projections (they develop separate personalities) and her family, led by Noelle (Rachel Gleeson) in plus-fours and the attitude which comes with them. In the world of the family, Maddy has disappeared after a confrontation with Noelle. Noelle’s brother, Addy (Peter Corboy) evokes Emmet Kelly with an inheritance as Corboy lets him sit awkwardly in continual moments of self-effacing embarrassment. Breffni Holahan stalks into their lives as Bea, a con-woman carer for their father, and gives an impassioned soliloquy about her turn to crime when she couldn’t afford her own mother’s care. Holahan’s dry comic timing is an excellent complement to her character. The cast is completed by the Collapsing Horse go-to physical comic, John Doran, as James Grief, playing at being a detective. The players throw themselves into the performance, imbuing each character with distinct and almost frenetic vocal and physical presence. The epitome of this is Gleeson’s tantrum, a virtuosic explosion that demands (and certainly gets) its own space on stage.

With nods to Chekhov in the writing realised by the delightfully menacing old-house set (Sarah Bacon, designer) and references to Greek theatre (a fascination of Collapsing Horse demonstrated most clearly by their production of The Aeneid in 2016), Commedia dell’Arte and clowning, the theatre credentials of this comedy (with sad bits) scaffold its quirkiness and structure its surreality. The archetypes are played with earnestness and theatrical magic of all kinds is employed to effectively evoke the unresolved strangeness that is a Collapsing Horse hallmark. Without wanting to alter that quality, however, this reviewer looked for more confidence and cohesiveness in writing and direction. Occasionally the production rushed to the next gag or comedic sequence instead of letting awkward tensions and visceral reactions develop for the audience. The collaboration demonstrated by the cast in the manipulation of Maddy the puppet could be carried further into the time they are on stage as characters.

As a writer, Quinn’s voice is fascinating and intuitive, taking the audience to unexpectedly real places in the midst of playful surreality. Trusting the clash between comedy and tragedy takes time, practice, and confidence. With Colley and Quinn leading their dedicated, talented casts, Collapsing Horse is claiming this strange and wonderful space – an intoxicating vintage indeed.

Runs until 29 July 2017 | Image: Contributed

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