Little Gem

Hilda Fay as Lorraine in Gúna Nua's 'Little Gem' by Elaine Murphy. Photo: Futoshi Sakauchi

Hilda Fay as Lorraine in Gúna Nua's 'Little Gem' by Elaine Murphy. Photo: Futoshi Sakauchi

Anita Reeves as Kay in Gúna Nua's 'Little Gem' by Elaine Murphy. Photo: Futoshi Sakauchi

Anita Reeves as Kay in Gúna Nua's 'Little Gem' by Elaine Murphy. Photo: Futoshi Sakauchi

Sarah Greene as Amber in Gúna Nua's 'Little Gem' by Elaine Murphy. Photo: Futoshi Sakauchi

Sarah Greene as Amber in Gúna Nua's 'Little Gem' by Elaine Murphy. Photo: Futoshi Sakauchi

[This is a review of the September 2009 run of this production.]

Little Gem has already garnered a number of awards including the Stewart Parker for playwright Elaine Murphy. The most recent laurel was the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Fringe accolade which sees this three-hander of grandmother, mother and daughter head for a run at the renowned Flea Theatre in TriBeCa off Broadway in New York in January. Wherever it has been so far, actress and debutante author Murphy’s play blazes a trail of humanity, humour and, on this showing, truly memorable performances from the all-female cast.

The current line-up of Little Gem sees one change from the premiere showings in last year’s Dublin Fringe. Sarah Greene has replaced Aoife Duffin as teen daughter Amber. Hilda Fay and Anita Reeves, however, continue as mother Lorraine and grandmother Kay, respectively. Green slips into Amber’s sambuca-charged character seamlessly while Fay and Reeves are so at home in their protagonists’ skin it feels as though you’re sitting in each one’s sitting-room listening to the tragic-comic confessions of friends you’ve known for years as opposed to being sat with a group of strangers in an unfamiliar auditorium watching a work of ‘fiction’.

The style of Little Gem is that of the confessional monologue. Amber is in her late teens. Lorraine straddles the threshold of late 30s or early 40s. Kay is in her 60s. Yes, this is the matrilineal line here but, at the beginning of the play at any rate, they don’t really talk to each other. Any notions of female solidarity are thus stalled, initially. What we get are three human beings caught up in their own struggle. As if to emphasise this singularity and the fact that each are locked into their own world when one character talks the others are shadowed in darkness. Significantly, though, this generational and emotional gap is more or less bridged at the end without a loss of individuality.

We first encounter Amber on her debs’ night. She’s dressed to kill. Her fake tan looks real natural and she’s so much spray in her hair that she doubts a hurricane would move it. Her pride and joy is her boyfriend, Paul. But, she equally, takes joy in herself, too. She drinks too much and does coke. A little later on in this Amber’s introductory monologue we already learn that Paul might have a wayward streak in him. Further down Amber’s journey she’ll become pregnant with Paul’s baby. Amber’s mother Lorraine works in a shoe shop. She’s long split from Amber’s father, Ray, a junkie who is now on the street full time. After verbally assaulting a customer the human resources team at Lorraine’s shop recommend she see a psychiatrist. On the shrink’s advice that Lorraine do one good thing for herself she meets the very hairy (a running joke through the play amongst the three women) Niall, separated with a young kid. An anti-climactic night with Niall surprisingly leads to a blossoming romance.

Meanwhile, Kay has an itch “down there” as she frankly informs the audience straight off. Kay also is blunt about the fact that she hasn’t had sex in over a year and it’s killing her. Her husband Gem has had a stroke. We are then treated to the hilarious account of how, on the recommendation of a friend, Kay heads off to the Ann Summers shop to purchase a ‘Rampant Rabbit’. Such sexual honesty and desire in a woman past 60 endears Kay immediately to her audience. All pretences are down. Her subsequent misadventures with her sex toy are truly hilarious.

Amber, Lorraine and Kay are drawn together by sex, desire, betrayal and love. All three are wonderfully complex characters. They’re working class Dubliners and they burn with the uninhibited fire of life. They are not strangled and stifled by suffocating middle-classness. Elaine Murphy also does a fabulous job of having the audience in stitches one minute and then the very next we have to confront the very opposite of humour. This is nowhere better exemplified than when Gem suffers a fatal stroke in Kay’s arms moments after Kay has being battling (wo)manfully with her sex toy.

Elaine Murphy has said that much of the inspiration for Little Gem comes from her experiences and the stories of the women she meets in her part-time job in a woman’s health organisation. Her play is a huge, optimistic love poem to the spirit of all women from the marginalised, less privileged zones of our society. Anita Reeves, Hilda Fay and Sarah Greene deliver superb, passionate, (em)bracing performances that befit Elaine Murphy’s devoted paean.

What of the men in the play, though? The Little Gem of the title refers to Amber’s infant son who will continue the line of good men embodied by Kay’s husband whose name the baby is given. Paul and Niall may well become life-long partners of Amber and Lorraine. Nevertheless, the underlying subtext of Little Gem is that the male and female spaces can only ever be tangential. Perhaps, this is the ultimate obstacle to overcome behind this otherwise life-affirming jewel by Elaine Murphy.

Patrick Brennan is a freelance journalist, critic and lecturer and is currently writing a book on the theatre of Tom Murphy.


  • Review
  • Theatre

Little Gem by Elaine Murphy

3 - 12 Sept 2009; 20 Jan- 27 Feb 2010

Produced by Gúna Nua and Civic Theatre
In Civic Theatre, Tallaght; The Peacock, Dublin

Directed by Paul Meade

Designer: Alice Butler

Lighting design: Mark Galione

Sound design: Carl Kennedy

With: Sarah Greene, Hilda Fay and Anita Reeves