Barry O'Connor and Janice Byrne in 'Noteworthy' by Róisín Coyle at Theatre Upstairs. Photo: Fiona Morgan

Barry O'Connor and Janice Byrne in 'Noteworthy' by Róisín Coyle at Theatre Upstairs. Photo: Fiona Morgan

Niamh McCann, Barry O'Connor and Janice Byrne in 'Noteworthy' by Róisín Coyle at Theatre Upstairs. Photo: Fiona Morgan

Niamh McCann, Barry O'Connor and Janice Byrne in 'Noteworthy' by Róisín Coyle at Theatre Upstairs. Photo: Fiona Morgan

Roísín Coyle’s short play Noteworthy takes one of the oldest theatrical devices as its chief dramaturgical device: a letter. In the opening moments of Janet Moran’s production at Theatre Upstairs, Louise (Janice Byrne) holds a lighter to a piece of paper, which smoulders uncertainly before being consumed by flames. There is a silent witness to her act; her brother Liam (Barry O’Connor), who hovers at her shoulder. However, it isn’t until her sister Nicola (Niamh McCann) arrives that we realise the significance of this minor act of epistolary arson. It is not a spoiler to reveal that the letter Louise burns was her brother’s suicide note, which her mother has been obsessing over in the months since Liam’s death. The letter works an obvious plot device, impelling this study of grief and the effects of suicide on those left behind.

The play unfolds over forty-five minutes as the sisters await their mother’s arrival home. How will she take the news that her final link to Liam, and the only clue she has to the reasons her son took his own life, has been destroyed? More than that, how will she react if she finds out that the letter was actually fabricated by Louise, a knee-jerk reaction to the trauma of discovering his body? That Liam actually chose not to leave an explanation of his actions is a further betrayal of family trust.

Photo: Fiona MorganIt is from these slightly implausible circumstances that Coyle crafts a convincing study of the bereft mind. The sisters’ emotions veer between anger and guilt as they continue to try to come to terms with their brother’s death, and though their reactions are text-book, they emerge through a naturally evasive conversation in which the sisters circle the true reason for their anger: their grief. Byrne and McCann acquit themselves well to the intense emotional demands of the script, and the intimacy of Theatre Upstairs heightens the discomfort of their heated exchanges.

The decision to include Liam as a silent observer of his sisters’ grief, however, is a less successful theatrical device, and Moran, an actress making her directorial debut here, seems unsure as to the purpose of this embodied ghost. Is he a character observing the aftermath of his own death or just a cipher, the physical absence that haunts them made material? Liam speaks the lines of the suicide note at key moments as the girls try to tease out possible reasons for his death, but the rest of the time Moran positions him between the sisters, following their exchanges like a spectator at a tennis match – ping pong, ping pong – with a blank face that betrays no emotion. O’Connor is also an extremely tall actor, and his stooped or slouching presence skews the visual perspective of Martin Cahill’s fine set.

Theatre Upstairs is a tiny space, but it continues to surprise its audiences with its ability to be reimagined by designers. In this case Cahill manages to squeeze a convincingly realistic replica of a working kitchen into the small space. Lighting by Eoin Stapleton and Eoin Byrne, meanwhile, subtly evokes an evening setting in as Louise and Nicola wait for their mother to come in for dinner.

Coyle is a graduate of the Abbey Theatre’s New Playwright’s programme and Noteworthy is an efficient and sensitive study of a family in crisis. Although there are structural weaknesses, Moran wrests convincing performances from the cast, and as a one-act study of a family in crisis it is a promise of better things to come.

Sara Keating

  • Review
  • Theatre

Noteworthy by Roísín Coyle

19 Feb – 2 March, 2013

Produced by Bright Light Productions
In Theatre Upstairs @ Lanigan's

Directed by Janet Moran

Set Design: Martin Cahill

Lighting Design: Eoin Stapleton and Eoin Byrne

Costumes Design: Sorcha McClenaghan

With: Janice Byrne, Niamh McCann and Barry O’Connor