Dear Frankie

Sarah Barragry and Nuala Hayes in 'Dear Frankie' by Niamh Gleeson. Photo: Frank Barr

Sarah Barragry and Nuala Hayes in 'Dear Frankie' by Niamh Gleeson. Photo: Frank Barr

Nuala Hayes in 'Dear Frankie' by Niamh Gleeson. Photo: Frank Barr

Nuala Hayes in 'Dear Frankie' by Niamh Gleeson. Photo: Frank Barr

Dear Frankie follows the true story of the rise and decline of Ireland’s first on-air agony aunt. Unfortunately, one of the things that debilitates Niamh Gleeson’s new play, is the tyranny of fact. The work is circumscribed by the parameters of the biography of Frankie Byrne, a household name for the (now wrinkled) listeners to the Rádio Eireann of the late fifties. Gleeson ends up with a clunky, fragmented construction, which spends too much time in the studio as Frankie doles out commonsense advice to the bachelor farmers and worried housewives of yore.

The playwright is absorbed by the authentic detail of Frankie’s story (grateful in a programme note for all the cooperation from the family) and it evokes the surface of a bygone world – “mother-spoiled men”, ladies having problems with their soufflés, and men with pongs from the downstairs loo. One senses that the correspondence is authentic (and Waldron’s sound design abounds with Sinatra and the evocative signature tune) but for the most part it lacks any dramatic frisson. In the second half, there is a shift in tone to suggest darker things in the tentative missives from a girl who’s being abused by her father. (Frankie makes a positive, private intervention but the matter would never have made it to the airwaves.)

Nuala Hayes in Dear Frankie by Niamh Gleeson. Photo: Frank Barr.Nuala Hayes plays the role for all its worth. She doesn’t go for a facsimile of the original, but creates a voice, redolent of late nights, nicotine and alcohol, that is evocative of Frankie's mellow tone. She is hampered by having to move constantly from one section of Cahill’s multi-purpose setting (home, office, studio) to the other and this induces a mood of superfluous restlessness.

Sarah Barragry is the main victim of this restlessness, as she must take on all the female characters in the story – nuns, yanks, sisters, the whole array of the letter-writers to the programme. She ends up trying to do too much with limited means, in terms of costume, direction and, most tellingly, vocal range. Her voice is not up to the changes of character – they all sound and look the same.

Donagh Deeney fares better. He has a few props (spectacles, overcoat) and a command of accents that means that Frank Hall, for instance, (the married Casanova of the airwaves who takes up with Frankie and then dumps her for a younger model) is clearly delineated.

But it remains awkwardly episodic. Gleeson, who is directing her own play, struggles to put a dramatic shape on a very specific life. Potentially, there are themes from that life which could be seen in more universal terms - parental rejection, loneliness, extra-marital relations, betrayal and rejection, adoption, the hardness of nuns, alcohol abuse, fame, failure and dementia - but these are all glimpsed through a gauze of platitude. The ending is sad – radio had moved on, Ireland has moved on, and Alzheimer’s creeps in. “All my words have been stolen,” says Frankie in a poignant concluding note.

But the real focus is a trip down memory lane, as a tonic for all the silver-haired heads in the audience, who warm to oul’ Mr. Brennan, Jim Figgerty, the Kennedy’s of Castleross, and the Angelus (the only remaining relic of oul' decency). The feel-good factor is strong and will spread across Ireland through October. The only curmudgeon in Liberty Hall was the reviewer.

Derek West is the Arts & Education Officer of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals. He edits the Association’s publications and administers its arts scheme for schools, Creative Engagement.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Dear Frankie by Niamh Gleeson

20 Sept - 30 Oct, 2010 (on tour)

Produced by Five Lamps Theatre Company
In Liberty Hall Theatre

Written & Directed by Niamh Gleeson

Set Design: Martin Cahill

Lighting Design: Colm Hackett and Cleo McCann

Costumes: David Houghton, Betty Kean Corcoran, Sandra Phillips

Sound Design: Alan Waldron

With: Nuala Hayes, Sarah Barragry and Donagh Deeney