Karen Egan and Louis Lovett in the Abbey Theatre world premiere of 'Bookworms' by Bernard Farrell, directed by Jim Culleton. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Karen Egan and Louis Lovett in the Abbey Theatre world premiere of 'Bookworms' by Bernard Farrell, directed by Jim Culleton. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

“Let’s try to show everyone that, recession or no recession, we are contented and happy – and this evening is going to be fun!” Spoken by deluded book club hostess Ann, this optimistic manifesto might well be the motto for Bernard Farrell’s frothy comedy of manners, Bookworms, which turns a sentimental eye to post-Celtic Tiger Ireland and its bankrupt middle-classes, who are still clinging to the civility of social rituals like book clubs with their buffed and well-manicured nails. In true Farrell style, there is resentment and chaos simmering underneath the polished surfaces of suburban living: personal grudges, soured professional entanglements, adultery and shady pasts. You cannot even have a book club these days it seems without some sort of crisis.

Deirdre Donnelly and Marion O’Dwyer in Bernard Farrell's 'Bookworms'. Photo: Ros KavanaghSet in the suburban home of bookish housewife Ann and her unemployed builder husband Larry, Bookworms unfolds over an evening of literature: Virginia Woolf and Harper Lee – there will be no contemporary popular bestsellers for this group of friends. Traditionally the book club “is the last bastion of female exclusivity”, prim school teacher Jennifer tells us, but on this occasion husbands have been invited to contribute – a little social experiment that goes terribly wrong. Jennifer’s arrogant bank manager husband Robert brings bankrupt Larry to heel before the books are even opened, while Larry, no reader, resents being forced to perform the intellectual in his own house. Larry’s emotionally unstable brother Vincent, newly-released from prison, is hiding upstairs; their daughter Aisling keeps appearing unannounced on the TV thanks to skype; and the final guest Dorothy tells us that everyone she comes into contact with her these days drops dead. Is it any wonder that Ann needs to knock back a bottle of Shiraz before her 'friends' have even had their first sausage roll? Well, that takes care of the basic plot then, which is further complicated by all the mistaken identities, misunderstandings and in-jokes on which the comedy of manners thrives.

Under director Jim Culleton’s able guidance, the ensemble physically inhabit Anthony Lamble’s salubrious suburban dwelling with ease. As visitors to Ann and Larry’s world they sink into the sofas, strut out to see the water features, turn up the gravel as they arrive and leave, as if they own the place, mimicking the power dynamic at play within the drama. The performances, meanwhile, verge from the melodramatic to the histrionic in accordance with the plot's demands. Karen Egan is all edgy and angles as the uptight Jennifer, transforming every opportunity into a lesson on literature and social decorum and every minor event (cheese, anybody?) into an “oh my God!” emergency. There is a touch of the cartoon too about Louis Lovett’s Louis Lovett, Michael Glenn Murphy and Phelim Drew in Bernard Farrell's 'Bookworms'. Photo: Ros Kavanaghscheming banker Robert and Marion O’Dwyer’s progressively tipsy and frantic Ann, but character is always secondary to the unravelling plot in farces like these. Only Phelim Drew, whose tidy paunch is almost a second character, finds a deeper balance in his role as the put-upon Larry. Standing spread-legged or sitting back immobile in an upright chair, he has the glazed stunned expression of a man who has no idea how he came to be in a room with the people squealing around him. By the end of the play he seems anaesthetised, immune to any more misfortune.

There is an audience for the gentle social satire of a Farrell farce; an audience that enjoys familiar settings, recognisable character types, and the transparent foreshadowing of Farrell's style - and on opening night the auditorium throbbed with laughter from the well-heeled audience that has always been the main demographic for Farrell's work. And there is nothing wrong with that. However, for this theatre critic, the join-the-dots plotting, the off-stage threats, and the “coincidental” digital interventions (it used to be a telephone, now we have a visual evolution) that spur the action towards its climax and eventual resolution, are difficult to take seriously.

The problem is that this sort of comedy just never goes far enough. Suburbia does not implode, it just gently ripples underneath the force of whatever pressures are enforced upon it and order is re-established and nothing has changed. Have we, the audience, learnt anything from these middle-class machinations that we did not already know? Not really - although if you are not in a book club, you will not be likely to join. Will Robert repent? No, he will just be blackmailed by whoever has the social capital in the new slightly altered balance of things (thanks, Dorothy!) Will Ann be any less anxious about her intellectual or economic status at the next book club meeting? Doubtful; it is Ian McEwan’s Atonement after all. And poor old Larry, will he get any say when next year rolls around and it is Ann’s turn to have her poisonous group of friends over again for some light literary entertainment? Not a chance.

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

  • Review
  • Theatre

Bookworms by Bernard Farrell

1 June - 10 July, 2010

Produced by Abbey Theatre
In Abbey Theatre

Directed by Jim Culleton

Set and Costume Design: Anthony Lamble

Lighting Design: Kevin McFadden

Sound Design: Ben Delaney

With: Deirdre Donnelly, Pheilm Drew, Karen Egan, Liz Fitzgibbon, Michael Glenn Murphy, Louis Lovett, and Marion O’Dwyer