No Romance

Tina Kellegher and Stephen Brennan in 'No Romance' by Nancy Harris. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Tina Kellegher and Stephen Brennan in 'No Romance' by Nancy Harris. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Conor Mullen and Stella McCusker in 'No Romance' by Nancy Harris. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Conor Mullen and Stella McCusker in 'No Romance' by Nancy Harris. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

It’s fairly obvious there’s been somewhat of a sea change in Irish social mores when a line about Ryanair losing business if abortion becomes legalized in Ireland induces riotous laughter in an audience. Nancy Harris’s smart and endearing No Romance runs roughshod over what were once delicate taboos, putting front and centre issues of sexuality and desire in an Ireland that has, needless to say, changed utterly in the past few decades. That issues of gay marriage or the intertwining of sexuality and illness barely register an uncomfortable shifting of seats in the Peacock audience, though, signals that these subjects have lost some of their subversive sting. This is more reflective of a liberalization of attitudes among Irish audiences, rather than a lack of incisiveness on the part of Harris’s compelling new play.

Harris gives us three very different, but thematically linked, stories that deal with the unearthing of devastating secrets that characters have been keeping from their loved ones. In the first act, a photographer, Gail (Natalie Radmall-Quirke), has been hired by an old primary school acquaintance, Laura (Janet Moran), to take suggestive portraits for Laura’s boyfriend’s fortieth birthday. While Laura and Gail discuss possible poses and costumes under the constant intrusions of Gail’s live-in girlfriend, it emerges that Laura has breast cancer, and is using the opportunity to capture the image of her body before it undergoes the ravages of treatment.

In the second act, Carmel and Joe (Tina Kellegher and Stephen Brennan) argue about their daughter’s recent online indiscretion while awaiting the beginning of a wake for Joe’s mother. Carmel calls out Joe’s hypocritical umbrage over his daughter’s participation in a wet t-shirt contest when she confronts him with proof of his own online philandering. The resulting situation quickly devolves from a debate over what constitutes infidelity to something like a screwball Neil Simon comedy.

The last act examines the final moments of the elderly Peg’s (Stella McCusker) independence, as her son and grandson (Conor Mullen and Daire Cassidy) prepare to move her into a nursing home. Reaching out to her grandson, Peg reveals the circumstances of her abusive marriage, enduring the violent frustrations of her husband as he battled with his own buried sexuality.

All three pieces offer performances of conviction under Wayne Jordan’s assured direction, supported by Harris’s own ability to draw unexpected pathos from her characters’ confessions and confrontations. However, the strongest of these pieces is arguably the first, which is bolstered by Moran’s and Radmall-Quirke’s affecting performances. Moran is particularly winning as Laura, bouncing from bursts of charming giddiness to heartbreaking moments of vulnerability. The latter two pieces feel slightly underwritten when compared to the first act, and as a result the actors have to work a little more to glean significance from their material, producing performances that are at times overwrought and stretched slightly thin. While Stephen Photo: Ros KavanaghBrennan’s Joe provides a masterclass in comic timing, Tina Kellegher struggles somewhat to match him as she tries to emotionally ground Carmel’s own admission of thoughts of infidelity. The playing for laughs here at times undercuts the emotional immediacy of the situation, and Carmel’s introduction of the evidence of Joe’s fetishes over his mother’s dead body, while ripe for sitcom-style hilarity, ultimately undermines the scene’s believability. Additionally, while Stella McCusker’s Peg is well drawn, the writing for her character is heavily weighted at the expense of Conor Mullen’s Micheal and Daire Cassidy’s Johnny, both of whom come off as two-dimensional foils for Peg to bounce her revelations off.

All this aside, Harris does on the whole deliver an effectually fractured portrait of an Ireland undergoing a collective loss of its sense of self, delicately structured with interwoven references that tie all three disparate acts together. Director Jordan handles the material with great sensitivity, proffering a hands-off approach that allows his cast of skilled actors, for the most part, to shine. Paul Keogan’s evocative design delights in simplicity, progressing from the billowing white and red of Gail’s studio, to the staid formality of a funeral home, to the bareness of Peg’s country home, smartly following the thematic shift from youth to old age, and from the fullness of new romance to the seeming absence of possibility.

Aided by a gifted ensemble and crew, Harris’s impressive Abbey debut will hopefully mark the beginning of an ongoing relationship between herself and the theatre, as well as heralding a renewed commitment by the Abbey to staging new work by Ireland’s next generation of playwrights.

Jesse Weaver recently completed his doctoral thesis at University College Cork. His research focus was on the changing roles of the playwright in Irish theatre production from 1980 to 2010.

  • Review
  • Theatre

No Romance by Nancy Harris

1 March - 1 April, 2011

Produced by Abbey Theatre
In Peacock Theatre

Directed by Wayne Jordan

Set and Lighting Design: Paul Keogan

Costume Design: Donna Geraghty 

Sound Design: Carl Kennedy

With: Conor Mullen, Daire Cassidy, Janet Moran, Stella McCusker, Stephen Brennan, Tina Kellegher and Natalie Radmall-Quirke