Come Forward to Meet You

Robbie O’Connor in 'Come Forward to Meet You'. Photo: Owen Boss

Robbie O’Connor in 'Come Forward to Meet You'. Photo: Owen Boss

Gillian Durnin in 'Come Forward to Meet You'. Photo: Owen Boss

Gillian Durnin in 'Come Forward to Meet You'. Photo: Owen Boss

Isn’t it funny how silence seems to amplify all sounds? A heavy door creaking in a distant corridor; the illicit whispers of secret lovers; the painful, hushed tones of a lullaby to a dead child… How difficult it must have been for the servants who lived and worked in Irish stately homes a mere 90 years ago to steal fleeting moments of privacy. In this, the second run of Upstate Theatre Project's Come Forward to Meet You, the real-life memoirs of servant Angela Mitchell are realised on the site where she lived and worked during the 1920s and beyond: Oldbridge House in Drogheda, a vast 18th century manor that now houses the Battle of the Boyne Visitors Centre. Here, in the annexes of Oldbridge House’s kitchen and servants' quarters, we are taken back in time through the milestones of Angela’s life as a servant; which in turn strives to give a voice to all those forgotten ‘ordinary people’ for whom the communalism of this way of life provided both comfort and agitation.

After being beckoned from the car park of Oldbridge to the inner courtyard by a severe, almost comically villainous butler, the audience is drawn sharply into a performance where to sit back and observe is not an option. At first, Vincent Doherty’s sound design - atmospheric scores, which are offset by slightly abrasive blue lighting – seems to allude to something more formulaically ‘spooky’ than the events that follow. After being divided into smaller groups of four, each group is directed to one of five rooms by a woman whose modern dress and purely functional role slightly upsets the illusion amidst the frantic scurrying of the 1920s-attired actors from one room to another, taking their places ahead of their audiences. It is within these rooms, behind closed doors, that Angela Mitchell’s memories come alive. Although personalia from Angela’s memoirs loosely dictate the scenes which are played out, director Louise Lowe has reached far beyond re-enactment.

Photo: Owen BossThe overriding sense of frustrated passivity is eminent here and it manifests in a number of physical ways. The sour-faced butler (Martin Collins) now takes us deep into the realms of one man’s mental torment as he pounds his body against walls and windowsills, leaping and vaulting as if madly trying in vain to escape the boundaries, not just of the house, but of the very skin that confines him. The choreography of his acrobatic feats is both graceful yet innately masculine at once.

After his gymnastic feats, the butler purposefully and systematically devours a plate of bread and cheese brought to him by a kitchen maid (Niamh Shaw) as she sits unflinchingly at the table. His breathing as he eats could only be described as post-climactic and when, with a sharp intake, he suddenly holds his breath and turns to stare out of the basement-level window for what seems like an age, we, the audience of four, hold our breaths with him due to an inexplicable fear of detection or intrusion. We are clearly privy to a deeply personal ritual. Collins' brusque exit from the room gives way to a mouthed silent scream from the kitchen maid which is more affecting than anything audible could portray.

In fact Lowe’s play on sound, and its sparsity, is incredibly perceptive. The way that the actors utilise the echoes that these vaulted ceilings facilitate, the gravelly friction that the gritted concrete floors provide and again, their own breathing that they each control with sharp precision, heightens the senses and allows the audience to really feel that they are part of some historic ether that still whispers faintly through Oldbridge House. As with the sound, less is more in set design (Owen Boss) and costumes (Maureen Finn). It might have been tempting to pack the old kitchen with rusty pots and pans and clothe the actors in extravagant rig-outs, but what has been achieved with both the set and the dress allows the stories to speak for themselves.

And these are delicate, poignant stories: the loss of one newborn twin and its subsequent unceremonious burial told by way of an intimate chat with actor Gillian Durnin whilst sitting on her bed; a highly-charged dance between a yearning boy (Robbie O’Connor) and a teasing girl (Julie Logue) that displays the lust and torment of a forbidden courtship; the eerie, repetitive murmurings of ‘Hail Mary’ as actor Grainne Rafferty acts out a servant’s recollection of the wake of her boss, the lady of Oldbridge House. Another room sees black and white photos of the house's one-time inhabitants projected onto hanging laundry as the actual voice of Angela Mitchell, retrieved from Drogheda’s oral history archives, knits together the scenes played out by the cast, against an overwhelming odour of carbolic soap.

Come Forward to Meet You is minimal and quietly unassuming in all aspects of its design: set, sound, lighting and costume. The actors, too, realise that they are facilitating the telling of a story, rather than making up their own. It is the delicate treatment of another woman’s memories that is this performance’s real triumph, and it is this delicacy that allows the audience to completely immerse themselves in a piece of history that may otherwise have been infinitely confined to the coffers of Oldbridge House.

Sheena Madden works with RTÉ Radio and writes on theatre and music for a number of publications. She recently completed a BA in Journalism.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Come Forward to Meet You by Upstate Theatre Project

25 - 27 august, 2011

Produced by Upstate Theatre Project
In Oldbridge House, Drogheda

Devised from the memoirs of Angela Mitchell by Louise Lowe and community members.

Directed by Louise Lowe

Sound Design: Vincent Doherty

Costume Design: Maureen Finn

Installation / Photography: Owen Boss

With: Martin Collins, Gillian Durnin, Julie Logue, Robbie O’Connor, Grainne Rafferty, Niamh Shaw and Eric O’Brien.

Come Forward to Meet You was first presented as part of the Drogheda Arts Festival in May 2011.