Big Ole Piece of Cake

Ian-Lloyd Anderson and Joe Hanley in the Fishamble production of 'Big Ole Piece of Cake' by Sean McLoughlin. Photo: Pat Redmond

Ian-Lloyd Anderson and Joe Hanley in the Fishamble production of 'Big Ole Piece of Cake' by Sean McLoughlin. Photo: Pat Redmond

Sean McLoughlin’s new play Big Ole Piece of Cake charts familiar territory. In the tradition of Irish naturalism, it places familial dysfunction under the microscope in a rural domestic setting; in this instance in the home of lonely bachelor Clarence, who is so desperate for company that he adopts two strange young men, Colin and Ray, as substitute sons. Meanwhile, in the tradition of contemporary playwriting McLoughlin examines modern urban masculine identity by displacing it; Colin and Ray are two vagabond Dubliners in exile in the idyllic Wicklow countryside.

In Jim Culleton’s resolutely naturalistic production the irony of Colin and Ray’s exile is indicated symbolically as well as literally. Ian Lloyd-Anderson’s homeboy Colin exaggerates his gangstsa swagger and crotch-grabbing gestures till he becomes the comic stooge. Countryman Clarence struggles to understand the origins of his African-American and Jamaican references, as well as the strange idioms of his thick Dublin drawl (Clarence’s “gaff” is the eponymous “big ole piece of cake.”) Meanwhile, Sinead O’Hanlon’s set features picture-postcard landscape paintings of the Irish countryside: an embroidered cottage scene with the words ‘home’ stitched in the foreground and an oil painting of the Burren, which Ray observes and finally concludes “I wouldn’t want to live there.” The inevitable violence that brings a climax to the drama is both the final deflation and confirmation of cultural stereotypes. On the one hand, the peaceful rustic ideal is rendered hostile by the savage intrusion of urban civilisation. On the other, our two Dubliners reveal themselves to be inherently bad.

Joe Hanley, Ian-Lloyd Anderson and Mark Lambert. Photo: Pat Redmond.If this confusion of ideas is problematic, it is only heightened by the occasionally clumsy dramaturgy of McLoughlin’s play. The premise – throwing characters of different backgrounds and experiences together to see how they will react – is a strong one, as are the underlying principles of character construction: the criminal with the conscience, the criminal without one but with a strong attachment to his brother, the self-pitying alcoholic forced to reveal the sins of his past. However, McLoughlin fails to find a natural way of eliciting the characters’ motivations, naturally, through the dialogue. Exposition thus becomes a big problem, with characters launching into monologues of backstory and revelation in order to advance the story, particularly in the final section of the play. It is as if McLoughlin fails to trust the power of sub-text to reveal the cogs and wheels of human nature. Between this and dramatic foreshadowing – “don’t mention Mountjoy”, “don’t call me a retard” – the end is both predictable and clichéd.

Despite the weaknesses in the material, performances from the cast of three are strong and Culleton shows a sensitive trust in dramatic pause and effect. Mark Lambert is obliging as the host Clarence but, unused to the closeness of company, he is simultaneously uncomfortable with the strangers. Joe Hanley’s coiled Ray. meanwhile, gives us menace without uttering a word. He dilates his eyes and raises his eyebrows and it is enough to shut his younger brother up, but he also has a soft edge to his bearing which allows us to believe in his filial concern. Colin, however, is the most convincing and complex character, and Ian Lloyd-Anderson finds impressive humanity in Colin's self-inflated posturing; Colin is ultimately both the victim and the villain of the play.

It is telling that it is when Colin sits silently sobbing in the final scene of the play that Big Ole Piece of Cake realises itself most completely. Perhaps if there were less plot to be distracted by, McLoughlin’s play might have revealed something more fundamental about human nature than our willingness to exploit each other to survive.

Sara Keating writes about theatre for The Irish Times and The Sunday Business Post.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Big Ole Piece of Cake by Sean McLoughlin

2 - 27 November, 2010 (on tour)

Produced by Fishamble Theatre Company
In Civic Theatre, Tallaght

Directed by Jim Culleton

Set Design: Sinead O’Hanlon

Costumes: Donna Geraghty

Lighting: Mark Galione

Sound Design: Ivan Birthistle and Vincent Doherty

With: Ian Lloyd-Anderson, Joe Hanley and Mark Lambert

Tour dates: 02-06 Nov - Civic Theatre, Tallaght; 8-20 Nov - Project Arts Centre; 23-27 Nov - Draíocht, Blanchardstown.