Last Train from Holyhead

Haw Theatre's 'Last Train From Holyhead'.

Haw Theatre's 'Last Train From Holyhead'.

Digging up the past is textural to Irish Theatre. Put two disaffected Irish men with a twenty-year generational gap on a long train journey late at night, post Christmas. Give them two glasses and a bottle of whiskey and one of them is sure to shovel up a tortured history.

As its title screams, Last Train From Holyhead, the debut outing of Haw Theatre from Galway, delves into the pickings of the Irish Diaspora, disinterring a human tale around the themes of identity, belonging and displacement.

Jack (Mick Lally) and Pat (Tony Dowling) are the odd couple trapped together in a railway carriage of a delayed train. They might have just barely tolerated one another, drunk the whiskey and disembarked as a pair of strangers, but for a Shakespearean quotient of meddling in the cauldron of human emotion by Shirley Walsh’s Gipsy, who deals them a hand of Tarot and an earful of high octane mysticism, full of allusions to the past, manipulating confrontation with each other and a history where their lives once converged.

Written and directed by Bernard Field, the script opens on disgruntled small talk and vitriolic disenchantment - particularly that of Jack’s with his "arrah’s" and "by Jaysus" - that initially jars but as the play gets into its stride, and the suspense mounts, its moral strength unfolds in the unearthing of a large truth from a small fiction. Jack and Pat’s story is a paradigmatic impassioned interrogation of Ireland’s societal shortcomings in a bygone era that meddled in its citizens’ integrity, distorting healthy familial instincts and forcing choices on people, the consequences of which would disturb individual lives all the way to the grave.

The direction is subtle and straightforward leaving Lally to effortlessly inhabit his old man as a fully realised creature, bigger than life in that believable language-soaked Irish sort of way. His portrayal of an Irish immigrant "done good in England", with a fondness for the booze that loosens his sentimental yearnings, is superb in his every gesture and interpretation of the vernacular. Against Dowling’s sardonic, sharp and world weary Pat, Lally’s character is permitted dominance and the old man evolves from your worst nightmare of a train companion to somebody you begin to understand and want forgiveness for. Yes, the play pulls the sentimental jugular but its resolution rips that away.

Almost every element of the production, from Roisin O’Toole’s simple minimalist set and costume design to Pat O’Reilly’s low key and precise lighting, conveys a sense of realism and intimacy in this vignette of theatre where the audience feels like a passenger eavesdropping on an exchange between two strangers on a train. The device of the Gipsy played with melodramatic fervour is the pastiche in the corner of this otherwise simple but earthy piece of theatre that delivers to resonate as a story you will remember and are sad to have heard as you step off the train.

Breda Shannon is a freelance writer and contributor of book reviews to The Irish Examiner.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Last Train from Holyhead by Bernard Field

21 September - 3 October, 2009

Produced by Haw Theatre
In Town Hall Studio Theatre, Galway

Directed by Bernard Field

Set and Costume design: Roisin O’Toole

Lighting design: Pat O’Reilly

With: Mick Lally, Tony Dowling and Shirley Walsh