Beyond the Brooklyn Sky

Aidain Vinnie in Red Kettle's Beyond The Brooklyn Sky. Photo by Conleth White

Aidain Vinnie in Red Kettle's Beyond The Brooklyn Sky. Photo by Conleth White

Beyond the Brooklyn Sky - Malachy McKenna & Sorcha Fox. Photo by Conleth White

Beyond the Brooklyn Sky - Malachy McKenna & Sorcha Fox. Photo by Conleth White

Vinnie McCabe in Beyond The Brooklyn Sky by Red Kettle Theatre Company. Photo by Conleth White

Vinnie McCabe in Beyond The Brooklyn Sky by Red Kettle Theatre Company. Photo by Conleth White

Stories that employ nostalgia as their central driving force have an enduring appeal; they hinge on the ‘what if’ moments that define our lives. Beyond the Brooklyn Sky is this type of story. Jack (Jaimie Carswell), Josie (Una Kavanagh), Mags (Sorcha Fox), Brendy (Aidan Dooley) and Greg (Malachy McKenna) are reunited in their home village in Kerry, having gone their separate ways in New York twenty years earlier. Through the course of a day and night, the ‘what if’ moments for each character become clear. Greg and Mags may have abandoned true love, Brendy and Jack may have abandoned their childhood friend in America and, in marrying Brendy, Josie may have abandoned her chance to be happy. The elderly Jamesie (Vincent McCabe) and the teenage Shannon (Roseanna Purcell) hover on the periphery of the action, but nevertheless complete a panoramic snapshot of three generations. Jamesie bears the weight of a lifetime of ‘what ifs’, while Shannon springs lightly around the stage, conspicuously free of the burden of regret.

Succumbing to the nostalgia that reunions tend to provoke, each of the central characters is preoccupied with a desire to relive again, to change the past, to be young again. At times this desire is infectious, and this is in large part due to the balance and credibility of the acting performances. No one character outshines the others; they truly appear to be childhood friends, with a complex dynamic that has evolved over many years. It is this credibility which makes the regret experienced by the characters so poignant: their lost loves and friendships compel us to reflect on the choices we have made, and are yet to make. As directed by Peter Sheridan, the action moves at an enjoyable and engaging pace, and people of a certain age will be particularly touched by the use of iconic music from the 1980s.

The problem with nostalgia is that while it may feel potent, it can also be pointless. This is an insight which each of the reunited friends fails to realise. They booze, fight, smoke drugs, have affairs and throw tantrums. While doing all this they lament the decisions they have made, and where these decisions have taken them. Never do we get a sense that they are willing to fully accept responsibility for their actions, or that they will try to change their lives in a positive way. Thus it is particularly apt that Aidan Dooley’s Brendy huffs and puffs petulantly before trying to blow his Celtic Tiger era mansion down, in a fit of rage. It is a an impotent act that encapsulates a fixation with the monoliths of the past, both real and imaginative.

At times during the performance, I hated the central characters for their staggering immaturity, but perhaps that is the point of Mulcahy’s script. Perhaps we are witnessing a scathing critique of the culture of nostalgia in Ireland, and a contemporary, middle-aged generation who refuse to acknowledge the part they have played in the economic crisis? The presence of the older Jamesie and the younger Shannon would support such a reading, in that they represent the previous generation, and the generations of the future. In his quietly powerful portrayal of Jamesie, Vincent McCabe presents a man who bears the burden of his regrets with a dignity and acceptance not present in the younger, middle-aged characters. Mags’s teenage daughter Shannon is pragmatic, cautiously optimistic, and her comparative maturity acts as a damning indictment of her mother’s friends. This is most evident in the way she acknowledges that her parents have a loveless marriage. Rather than clinging to false hope, or a romantic ideal, she is prepared to face the unpleasant truth. The conversation between Mags and Shannon in which this becomes clear is very well executed by Sorcha Fox and Roseanna Purcell. The frankness and wry humour of their delivery never fully masks the mutual respect and admiration they evidently have for each other.

The message here, for the audience and for Ireland, would appear to be to move on, from dwelling on the “what ifs” to thinking about the “what now?” If this truly is the case, then we needed the form to more fully match the content. The set, designed by Ben Hennessey, is familiar in that it is the type of multi-purpose space found in villages all over Ireland: at once a meeting place, a workshop and a gym. At the same time, this sense of familiarity is somewhat skewed by the haphazard placing of recesses and the lack of clean lines and angles. This sense of the not-quite-real is further augmented by Conleth White’s lighting design and Peter Sheridan’s direction, both of which combine to introduce sudden changes from light to dark, and time-lapses indicated by brisk and continuously lighted stage exits and re-entries. Rather than a clear subversion of the conventions of the emigration play, these points appear to be mainly aesthetic: it is difficult to fully embrace a call to look towards the future, when the presentation is so firmly rooted in the past. What we are left with is a presentation style as generic as the flat pack furniture we imagine to be lying in pieces in Brendy´s off-stage abode.

Beyond the Brooklyn Sky is well produced, well acted, and well paced. It has a potent brew of nostalgia that we can easily and happily allow ourselves to succumb to. However, the consequences of this intoxication are there before us on stage: a hangover that blurs the outline of past events, and clouds the way towards a better future.

Finian O’Gorman is a PhD candidate in Drama and Theatre Studies in NUI Galway.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Beyond the Brooklyn Sky by Michael Hilliard Mulcahy

9 Oct - 27 Nov, 2013

Produced by Red Kettle Theatre Company
In Town Hall Theatre & touring

Directed by Peter Sheridan

Set Designer: Ben Hennessy 

Lighting Designer: Conleth White

Costume Designer: Kate Moylan 

Sound Designer: Joe Harney

With: Jaimie Carswell, Aidan Dooley, Una Kavanagh, Sorcha Fox, Vincent McCabe, Malachy McKenna, Roseanna Purcell