Snake Oil

Theatre Upstairs presents 'Snake Oil' by Alan O'Regan. Photo: Ste Murray

Theatre Upstairs presents 'Snake Oil' by Alan O'Regan. Photo: Ste Murray

What’s at stake, and who’s in charge? Alan O’Regan’s one act play is a good, formal exercise in dramatic basics. Who wants what? How are they going to get it? What is it worth to them? Is it really worth it in the long run? This last is the kicker, as the effort employed by Shell (O’Callaghan) and Conor (Adlum) to get something for nothing out of Ed (Keane), in this mercenary reviewer’s humble opinion, isn’t worth the candle. Not that it’s not entertaining getting there, and this is where the power plays come in.

Shell is reading an old-fashioned book, wearing a rather dated, matronly outfit, at an airport bar. Tough on a lady to be stuck on her own, even if she’s got the usual literary shield. Ed’s gambit seems as though it will fall on arid ground, until he appraises Shell’s watch, an item that up until that moment – and that quote of €30K – had only sentimental value.

The relief that Shell expresses at this information results in tears, which she dries with older, old-fashioned Ed’s handkerchief. She’s so behind on her bills that she’s grateful to have a solution, but the story behind the watch has such emotional resonance that she can’t bear to part with it. Well, if she doesn’t want to sell the watch, will she sleep with poor old widowed Ed in exchange for a fee? A leg up for a leg over, as it were? Ah sure, why not.

Photo: Ste MurrayNext morning, Shell is gone, and Ed finds himself in company with her bespectacled roommate Conor, whose ratty towelling robe gives him the air of a diffident no-hoper – an air that comes across aggressively, like a dog fighting for the patch he already knows he’s lost. Ed gets Conor to roll over fairly sharpish, which somehow results in Conor’s successfully pitching Ed his scientific breakthrough diet pill. Ed catches the pitch, and he and Conor toddle off to the bank for €20,000 in cash in order to move the project forward.

The narrative slips and slithers from there, in a good way, in a tricky way, and it is satisfying, playing with notions of status as it does, and toying with ideas of age versus youth, the power of the female over the male and vice versa, and the ways in which being less powerful in a situation can result in superior manipulative skills.

But, all for a measly 20K? This particular stake seems far too low for the con involved, and indeed, for Shell’s eventual sacrifices, plural. That Shell and Conor are amateurs, and that experience will out, and that the effort on everyone’s parts isn’t soundly rooted in biography is a drawback of the short form.

Theater Upstairs’ small stage is used well by Doorly and her players. The set begins and ends with environments well-adapted to the limited square-footage, but the flow of the piece is hampered by an ungainly change between scenes one and two. The simplicity and directness of the first and last scenes, both in literal playing and figurative representation, is missing in the second. We knew where we were in both first and last scenes via the simplest of signifiers, and knowing we were in Shell and Conor’s apartment would have been just as easy for the audience to comprehend, without all the cereal bowls and other bits and pieces.

At the end of the day, it is all about belief. How much do Shell and Conor (with their tricksy, grifter names) really believe that they not only can get what they’re after, but also move forward in life without looking back? Do we as an audience believe that they know what they’re doing, and that they ‘deserve’ to have winkled 20 large out of a lonely old man? Do we believe that Ed is a lonely old man, or have we been wondering what he had up his sleeve? Do we believe that that watch is actually worth anything, really? Lots of questions, and a variety of answers make Snake Oil a clever, engaging piece; the low stakes, however, let it down a little.

 Susan Conley is a cultural critic and author. Her latest book is That Magic Mischief (2013).

  • Review
  • Theatre

Snake Oil by Alan O'Regan

18 - 29 June 2013

Produced by Theatre Upstairs
In Theatre Upstairs @ Lanigan's

Directed by Gemma Doorly

Set / Costume / Lighting Design: Laura Honan, Karl Shiels & Sinead Kelly

Composer / Sound Design: Derek Conaghy

Performed by Raymond Keane, Ciara O’Callaghan & Gerard Adlum