One is Not a Number

Gary Lydon in 'One Is Not A Number' by Billy Roche, directed by Johnny Hanrahan. Photo: Michael Harpur

Gary Lydon in 'One Is Not A Number' by Billy Roche, directed by Johnny Hanrahan. Photo: Michael Harpur

Gary Lydon in 'One Is Not A Number' by Billy Roche, directed by Johnny Hanrahan. Photo: Michael Harpur

Gary Lydon in 'One Is Not A Number' by Billy Roche, directed by Johnny Hanrahan. Photo: Michael Harpur

Last year, Meridian Theatre Company staged an adaptation of Kevin Barry’s award-winning short story collection There are Little Kingdoms. The result, although on many levels engaging, was more akin to a staged reading of the stories than successful drama, lacking focus, narrative arc and dramatic tension.

Despite the production’s shortcomings, the difficulties of putting the printed word on the stage are normally not lost on Meridian artistic director Johnny Hanrahan, who has made something of a virtue out of adapting books and short-stories for theatre. In 2002, he took Gaye Shortland’s story of Cork’s gay underworld, Mind That ‘Tis My Brother, and turned it into a frenetic romp that engaged with the possibilities of performed work. Madam T, his operatic production for Cork City of Culture 2005, took its starting point from one of Maupassant’s short stories.

Both of these shows made a successful transition from page to stage, and made their own of the starting narratives. The staged version of Billy Roche’s short story One is Not a Number also achieves this transition, with the drama - a monologue - taking on a noticeably different feel to the written story, despite the fact that the performed script remains largely unchanged from the printed version.

Of course, in choosing to work with Roche, Hanrahan has hit upon a writer who knows much about theatre: the first two of Roche’s series of Wexford-based plays, which eventually became known as 'The Wexford Trilogy', were staged by London’s Bush Theatre at the beginning of the 1990s, and since then, his work has featured sporadically on both the Irish and British stages. This is important, or at least it has important repercussions for the work on stage, which operates in stark contrast to last year’s production.

In contrast, too, to Hanrahan’s earlier adaptations, the piece has little in the way of overt theatricality. On stage stands one man, the club-footed Matty (Gary Lydon), an upturned rowboat and some strewn-about fishing nets – the work of set designer Bernadette Roberts. Any dramatic impact therefore rests on Lydon’s shoulders, with help from Roberts and lighting designer Kath Geraghty; Geraghty’s low, subtle lighting in particular reflects the unexceptional tragedy that is Matty’s tale.

Lydon manages to completely inhabit the character of Matty, creating for us a kind of anti-hero who nonetheless elicits our empathy. He pats his head nervously, strokes at his hair. He shuffles about, club foot in tow. At times, he roars out his pain. In Lydon’s embodiment, Matty is less gentle, more bitter, than he appears upon a reading of the short story. He curls his lip in rage at the memory of his brute father removing him early from school. He takes pointless glee at the “reign of revenge” he begins on the local community after the object of his infatuation, Imelda, marries one of the local lads. His fascination with mysterious newcomer Ishmael also extends to a kind of hatred, particularly on the evening he hears him tell Imelda that she is “a palm tree, growing in the wrong country”, a love line he himself has harboured secretly over the years.

Given that the script is more or less directly transposed from the original story, it is primarily the low-key ferocity inherent in Lydon’s performance that allows the play to work as a piece of theatre; the controlled collaborative effort between actor, writer, and director Hanrahan also impacts successfully on the piece.

The work is, therefore, engaging on its own merits. However, the question remains as to its larger purpose, at this particular time, on an Irish stage. The story is one of a time gone by, and of a character less than recognisable through contemporary eyes. Kevin Barry’s writing depicted an Ireland that had barely yet been examined in fiction, while Shortland’s work was also rigorously contemporary. For a work such as this to be relevant, particularly in the public arena of the theatre, it needs to have greater universal significance. Matty’s tragedy needs to say something to us, about the society we have created, or how we regard those who do not quite fit in. But despite Roche’s lovely writing, over which it is much easier to linger through the pages of the short story, and despite Lydon’s elegant performance, this play feels too narrow in scope to be more than simply another evening in time. 

Rachel Andrews is an arts journalist and critic, based in Cork.

One is Not a Number plays at the Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire on Wednesday 18th Nov at 8pm, Tickets €20/18, available online at: or tel: 01 2312929

  • Review
  • Theatre

One is Not a Number by Billy Roche

21 October - 20 November, 2009

Produced by Meridian Theatre Company
In Granary Theatre

Directed by Johnny Hanrahan

Set Design: Bernadette Roberts.

Lighting Design: Kath Geraghty

With: Gary Lydon