Caoilfhionn Dunne  in 'Pineapple', a new play by Phillip McMahon presented by Calipo Theatre Co.

Caoilfhionn Dunne in 'Pineapple', a new play by Phillip McMahon presented by Calipo Theatre Co.

Set in contemporary Ballymun, Phillip McMahon’s new play presents a range of themes from the joys and disappointments of first sex to the break-up and disintegration of communities. Most of the action takes place in a flat and in what seems to be a playground area nearby. Focusing on single mother Paula (Caoilfhionn Dunne) and her relationship with her sister Roxanna (Jill Murphy), her friend Antoinette (Janet Moran), and Dan (Nick Lee) – a strange man promising to make her happy – the production offers an insight into the complexities and contradictions of standing by your family and friends, no matter what.

The dreariness of the flat is fully realised by Paul O’Mahony’s set with its drab grey walls and scaffold frames. The large ragged walls suggest that no matter how much laughter and friendly chat occurs around the table, there will always be a looming darkness, impossible to shake off. As the play progresses it becomes evident that the flat is a reflection of Paula’s wider issues: she can’t get the "Corpo" to move her into a new place, and she can’t get rid of the negativity or the sadness within herself. A central frame is used as a window, through which recorded voices from other flats and from the street below continually plague Paula, always looking for assistance. Unfortunately the sound quality of these recordings is quite poor and at times it is difficult to make out what the voices are saying.

This frame of bars denoting the window is also used in other scenes as the outside area where teenagers Roxanna and Steph (Niamh Glynn) debate the pros and cons of sex. The frame is utilised both as a perch and a prop from which the girls continually swing. Under David Horan’s direction, the playful swinging and gyrating of the girls is perhaps an allusion to their status as teenagers, a mixture of both adult and child-like traits - but its continuous use becomes distracting and monotonous. Only once does the action take place outside these two locations when, with the aid of Sineád McKenna’s wonderful lighting design, a silent scene captures a beautifully intimate moment between two sisters.

At the heart of the production is the idea of sharing stories. As Antoinette and Paula sit around a Formica kitchen table, they continually hark back to tales of past relationships, how they somehow managed to get through it all together, how their nosey neighbours can annoy the hell out of them, and how very easy it is to fall in love with a ‘bastard’. Men don’t feature in a positive light in any of these narratives; even the affable Dan has skeletons in his closet. The play brings women’s voices to the fore and alludes to the importance of support networks of friends and family, through thick and thin.

Murphy is strong in her role as the self-obsessed Roxanna and Moran is equally good as the chatty neighbour Antoinette, with both characters getting some of the best lines in the play. Indeed, when it comes to gifting his characters with witty one-liners, McMahon is a master craftsman. Antoinette uses quips such as “Scarlet Church” and “Nancy Ragin'” to indicate embarrassment and anger respectively. When taken out of context, her comments about her new neighbours may be understood as racist, but McMahon’s writing and Moran’s delivery ensure that we recognise the remarks are coming from a place of endearment rather than malice. Murphy also expertly delivers McMahon’s witticisms, particularly when it comes to issues surrounding teenage sex: Steph, disappointed by her first sexual encounter and the size of the boy’s penis, turns to Roxanna for reassurance only to be told “don’t let his little micky put you off sex.” It is during such exchanges that the writing is at its best.

Unfortunately, however, the writing is quite laboured at times, especially when the characters drop purple prose into their dialogue. When Steph describes a fire in a field, her words not only seem out of character, but also somewhat contrived as she slips out of her usual colloquialisms. Also, as a result of problems with the writing and direction, there is little chemistry between Paula and Dan, and the relationship is far from convincing, with the result that the final scenes are lacking in emotional resonance. More specifically, Paula’s character is not fully developed and doesn’t seem to have any sort of trajectory. While Dunne does her best in the role of the moping single mother, it is difficult to sympathise with her or her story.

Overall, despite the fact that many narrative threads are left unresolved and the production fails to explore the women’s stories in any great depth, McMahon presents us with some memorable female characters and an often-witty piece of theatre.

Pádraic Whyte is a Lecturer at the School of English, Trinity College Dublin.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Pineapple by Phillip McMahon

30 April - 14 May, 2011

Produced by Calipo Theatre Company
In axis: Ballymun

Directed by David Horan

Dramaturg: Philip Howard

Set Design: Paul O’Mahony

Lighting Design: Sinéad McKenna

Sound Design: Ivan Birthistle and Vincent Doherty

Costume Design: Emma Fraser

With: Caoilfhionn Dunne, Nick Lee, Jill Murphy, Janet Moran and Niamh Glynn

 Presented in association with Drogheda Arts Festival 2011.