Deirdre Donnelly in the Abbey Theatre's production of 'Shush' by Elaine Murphy. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Deirdre Donnelly in the Abbey Theatre's production of 'Shush' by Elaine Murphy. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Eva Bartley and Ruth Hegarty in 'Shush' by Elaine Murphy. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Eva Bartley and Ruth Hegarty in 'Shush' by Elaine Murphy. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Deirdre Donnelly and Barbara Brennan in 'Shush' by Elaine Murphy. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Deirdre Donnelly and Barbara Brennan in 'Shush' by Elaine Murphy. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

In Elaine Murphy's 2008 play Little Gem, the lives of contemporary Irish women were thrust centre-stage with vivid realisation. Presented in monologue form, Little Gem was a first-person treatise that spanned generations of women, giving a frank and unsensationalised representation of family relationships and female sexuality. Shush ploughs similar territory but in broader form, as Murphy develops the distinctive voice of her debut play through dialogue and a formal two-act structure.

Photo: Ros KavanaghShush is set over a single night as a group of friends gather to celebrate the birthday of one of their core group, Breda (Deirdre Donnelly). Breda is depressed, and understandably so. Her husband has left her after a string of affairs, she’s about to lose her job, her only son has moved to New York, and her house is, literally, falling down around her. If anyone can cheer Breda up, it should be her energetic old friends. There is pushy Marie, played by Barbara Brennan with hair is so stiff it could be used as scaffolding; serial widow Irene, an affable Ruth Hegarty; Irene’s daughter, Clare (Eva Bartley), who dabbles in holistic medicine; and her neighbour Ursula, played by Niamh Daly, whose blank botoxed face conceals a myriad of personal problems. Over the course of an evening and more than a few Bacardi and Cokes, the women support and inspire each other towards acceptance and revenge.

The scenario, the characters, the themes are all familiar to contemporary life, but the play itself seems old-fashioned. Under Jim Culleton’s reverent direction, it also feels barely dramatic. Nothing of consequence happens on stage; indeed, it is possibly best summarised as a long conversation among friends. But this is not unusual in Irish drama. From Tom Murphy’s Conversations on a Homecoming to Conor McPherson’s The Weir, the significance of insignificant drunken chit-chat to Irish drama cannot be denied. What is unusual is the exclusively female concerns and characters. Murphy’s focus on domestic and marital problems may not quite be a radical step forward for gender politics, but hearing these issues given voice on the national stage is. Indeed, the most progressive aspects of Shush comes from the context of production rather than its content. The Abbey has a chequered history when it comes to supporting the female voice on the stage, and while many will argue that Shush is not an ‘Abbey play' – its contemporary and personal thrust eschews any connection to a grander national narrative – it is refreshing to see the parameters of this definition evolve by placing the work of a contemporary accessible female author centre-stage.

Photo: Ros KavanaghShush also places the female actor at the forefront, providing five substantial roles for women, and in particular the middle-aged woman, who has been largely invisible in twentieth and twenty-first century Irish drama, despite the fact that research continually shows that it is a settled female audience that is the engine of theatre ticket sales. Here, the cast have to work hard to bring life to Murphy’s characters, which offer more cliché than depth in what is essentially a surface presentation of the complications of female relationships. The sympathetic Donnelly slumps into self-pity so deeply that her body seems to hang off her head; Brennan is all arms and chin and eyebrows; Daly all hair-flicking and high-heeled strut. What results are cartoonish performances that force familiar jokes upon us, pleading with us to laugh, but we do. There may be little dramatic action, but there are a few good jokes.

A lot of the humour, however, emerges from the house’s malfunctions, which serves as a metaphor for Breda’s state of mind. Anthony Lamble’s cluttered suburban set is rimmed by a city skyline, calling to mind his design for the Abbey Theatre’s 2010 production of Bookworms, which Culleton also directed.  Indeed, Bernard Farrell is the writer that Murphy most resembles in Shush. Farrell’s plays have always been popular with audiences, less so with critics, who struggle to find significance in the affirmation of ordinary life that an audience recognising themselves on stage does.

It is important to state, however, that Shush is only Murphy’s second play, and despite its shortcomings it marks an enormous leap in her command of dramatic form, from the single-voiced storytelling of monologue to the trickier territory of dialogic interaction. And if Murphy doesn’t quite pull it off here, there is enough promise in her command of language to inspire confidence in the future.

Sara Keating writes about theatre for The Irish Times and the Sunday Business Post. 

  • Review
  • Theatre

Shush by Elaine Murphy

12 June - 20 July, 2013

Produced by the Abbey Theatre
In the Abbey Theatre

Directed by Jim Culleton

Lighting Design: Kevin McFadden

Set Design: Anthony Lamble

Costume Design: Niamh Lunny

Sound Design: Denis Clohessy

Movement Coordinator: Liz Roche

With: Eva Bartley, Barbara Brennan, Niamh Daly, Deirdre Donnelly, Ruth Hegarty.