Best Man

'Best Man' by Carmel Winters at Cork Midsummer Festival 2013. Photo: Mike McSweeney Provision

'Best Man' by Carmel Winters at Cork Midsummer Festival 2013. Photo: Mike McSweeney Provision

'Best Man' by Carmel Winters at Cork Midsummer Festival 2013. Photo: Mike McSweeney Provision

'Best Man' by Carmel Winters at Cork Midsummer Festival 2013. Photo: Mike McSweeney Provision

It is curiously compelling to watch the complete implosion of a family. Alan, the husband and father in the Carmel Winters' new play, Best Man, recounts that he turned on the spluttering coffee machine "because the kettle seemed too meek." This passionate, punchy play steers clear of meekness and embraces the distasteful dysfunctions of its characters, male and female. 

The play's action rips the plaster off a marriage in distress by turning a cliché on its head. It manages to do this with credibility and passion. Alan and Kay's marriage is invaded by sexy Nanny Marta's arrival - "the whole house is smoking with lust for the nanny." Her sexiness is beautifully captured by a shadow she casts on the wall as she stands, still and controlled, while a drunken Kay garishly parades her vulgar financial successes on the property market.

Property and possession are at the heart of the struggles in the play, particularly for Kay, brilliantly and gaudily portrayed by Derbhle Crotty. She is a successful estate agent whose life is at the epicentre of the play's storm. She has embraced her role as chief breadwinner since the gentler Alan stole from her the mothering role for which she had no natural instinct. She cannot, however, truly respect a man who "chooses to pack his own children's lunch boxes." When crisis hits, she has some moments of real vulnerability but one can't help believing that "if this was a property deal, you wouldn't give in so easily." Her values are twisted. She cannot find solace in masculinity or femininity and is reduced to (rather convincingly) threatening Alan that "I'm nearer the poker than you are." Crotty's performance of this mostly unpleasant character is outstanding.

Peter Gowan's character of Alan is more subtle at first, but suffers from some of the play's occasional slips into unconvincing cliché. He is described as weak by his abrasive wife, but admired as a modern man by Marta. He, too, is at times extremely unpleasant and wields the power he prises from Kay's grasp clumsily and resentfully. Gowan is less at ease in this character than Crotty in hers, though it is also true that Alan is less nuanced than Kay. He is black and white; she is shades of grey.

Marta (Kate Stanley Brennan), the catalyst of the crisis, is in a way the most sympathetic character, though her tangential back story (involving her Bolivian mother's relationship with ex-Ambassador/colonial "gentleman" Bryan Murray) is almost too complicated and intriguing for the small space it occupies in the play. This however is a flaw in the writing, not the performance, and Stanley Brennan embodies a fragile confidence throughout the play.

Outside of the scorching, spinning triangle of Kay, Alan and Marta, the three satellite characters seem two-dimensional. Ageing retired Ambassador (Murray) is surrounded by fading, fragmenting memories of former glory and virility, as his mind and body both gently fold in. While eloquently portrayed, it was difficult to engage with the old man, whose purpose in the play seemed merely to explain part of Marta's character, rather than to be anything in his own right. Likewise, the matronly Bernadette, busily performed by Úna Crawford O'Brien, seems to have little real purpose in the play. Young Claire, Kay and Alan's teenage daughter (Róisín O'Neill) is portrayed as merely the vulnerable victim of her upbringing and her parents' misadventures. The whole space moves, the triangle spins, the private and public worlds are re-configured – surely the minor characters could have a more complex life than misogynist, matron and victim? I do not retain a sense of these characters as real, though the play is realistic, and realistically played throughout.

The only exceptions to this realism are one or two unexpected but comfortable digressions into a slightly more abstract theatrical idiom. Director Michael Barker-Caven confidently slips us into a monologue delivered by Crotty, and into a stylised split-scene. That Barker-Caven can so smoothly digress from the style but return us seamlessly is a mark of the overall confidence in the entire production. It is a sleek and extravagant production, which serves its strong material well. Designer Liam Doona's huge, clinical sliding panels sleekly evoke the Celtic Tiger excesses in the family home. Frequent scene changes are harnessed as opportunities to showcase the projections and video footage (video design by Arnim Friess including property layouts, warm family photos and videos, the evocative re-furnishing of a doll's house). The projections elaborate on the overall coherent design, both thematically and stylistically. In turn this dovetails with excellent lighting (Sinéad McKenna) and sound designs (Ivan Birthistle and Vincent Doherty). If anything the production is a little too loud, too abrasive, but I felt the distasteful excesses of the Celtic Tiger era (in which most of the play is firmly placed) very keenly.

I recently heard playwright Mike Kenny suggest that the key to a successful play might be to "leave a question in the play that you don't know the answer to." The questions raised by Winters – of property, possession and gender clichés – deserve this flawed but provocative probing before, like many properties bought and sold during the past two decades, they can be built to more enduring plans.

Sile Ni Bhroin is Associate Director of Graffiti Theatre Company, Cork. Prior to this she spent nine years working as a freelance theatre-maker in Prague.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Best Man by Carmel Winters

21-29 June in Cork, 16-27 July in Dublin

Produced by The Everyman and Project Arts Centre in association with Cork Midsummer Festival
In The Everyman, Cork

Directed by Michael Barker-Caven

Set and Costume Design: Liam Doona

Lighting Design: Sinead McKenna

Music and Sound Design: Ivan Birthwhistle and Vincent Doherty

Video Design: Arnim Friess

With: Derbhle Crotty, Peter Gowan, Kate Stanley Brennan, Róisín O'Neill, Bryan Murray, Úna Crawford O'Brien

At The Everyman as part of Cork Midsummer Festival 21st-29th June

At Project Arts Centre 16th-27th July