Emma O'Grady in Mephisto Theatre's production of 'Grenades' by Tara McKevitt.

Emma O'Grady in Mephisto Theatre's production of 'Grenades' by Tara McKevitt.

Originally produced as a radio play, Grenades is an award-winning one-hander that depends largely on narrative. As she waits in a prison, the play’s protagonist Nuala Kelly weaves together significant memories from her childhood, relaying them to the audience in an enthralling, heart-wrenching monologue. Mephisto’s production of Grenades simultaneously showcased the skills of two expert storytellers: playwright, Tara McKevitt and actor Emma O’Grady.

Set in Northern Ireland during the 70s and 80s, this work dramatises the immense impact of the external, socio-political milieu on the insular world of a child. The writing sensitively captures youthful innocence. Moreover, Nuala’s inexperienced perspective operates on two levels: her unclouded vision allows her to see truths that are beyond the comprehension of adults; her own incomprehension of grave situations casts them in a much starker light.

With ease, O’Grady inhabited the role of Nuala—as well as the caricatures she provides of the people that made up her childhood world. Under Lynch’s skilled direction, O’Grady used mimicry to offer vivid portraits of characters such as Nuala’s granddad, her classmate Elaine Jam-Jar Glasses and her teacher Sister Mary. Many of these impersonations, for example Sister Mary’s hilariously robotic preaching, imbued the early scenes with endearing comedy, before the drama ventured into darker territory.

The grenade is a recurring motif throughout the play, employed both literally and figuratively. While the detonation of an actual grenade throws the Kelly family into crisis, the motif is also used to symbolise a series of revelations that, for Nuala, have explosive consequences. She escapes these harsh realities through fantasy, and the descriptions of her dreams are beautifully drawn. Invigorated by O’Grady’s energetic performance, these were among the most vibrant moments in the production. Nuala’s dream world, when juxtaposed with her daily life, serves to emphasise the extent of her emotional neglect.

Paul Houlihan’s sound design perfectly complemented the action. The sea is a significant feature of Nuala’s reveries, and beach sounds accompanied the production’s more tranquil moments. The protagonist also refers to various popular songs that play through her fantasies, ending always with Thin Lizzy’s ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’. Houlihan’s later use of this upbeat song sensuously resonated with Nuala’s imaginings and helped to locate the story in its historical context.

While we know that Nuala is somewhere in a prison, her exact location is left deliberately ambiguous. O’Grady and Lynch’s sparse set appropriately conveyed a room that could have been either a cell or a waiting room. It consisted of two walls which met at an angle centre stage, thus allowing us to view only one corner of the room. This reduced the stage space. The effect was claustrophobic, but it also increased the intimacy of O’Grady’s engagement with the audience.

Grenades is not just another play about the Troubles. It stimulates widely relevant questions regarding the ways in which children cope—or fail to cope—during wartime situations. The adults in Nuala’s family use stereotypically Irish methods to deal with trauma: by taking to the bed or to the drink. However, the focus of this work is instead on a childhood coping mechanism: the imagination. Thus, Grenades offers a fresh perspective on a well-worn subject.

Siobhán O’Gorman is currently completing a doctoral research project on gender and the canon in contemporary theatre at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Grenades by Tara McKevitt

29 and 30 October, 2010

Produced by Mephisto Theatre Company
In Nuns Island Theatre

Directed by Caroline Lynch

Lighting Design: Mike O’Halloran

Sound Design: Paul Houlihan

Set Design: Caroline Lynch and Emma O’Grady

With: Emma O’Grady

Presented as part of Galway Theatre Festival, 2010.