Tea Chests and Dreams

Donna Anita Nikolaisen (left) and Kelly Hickey (right) in Dermot Bolger's new play 'Tea Chests and Dreams'.

Donna Anita Nikolaisen (left) and Kelly Hickey (right) in Dermot Bolger's new play 'Tea Chests and Dreams'.

As Dermot Bolger says in the programme notes to his new play, one would be hard pressed nowadays to find tea chests to use for packing up house in order to move. Regardless of packing methods, the event of moving house, as Bolger’s play effectively expresses, calls up a spectrum of anxieties and hopes, and intimates how, in spite of the time one spends in a house, the state of feeling truly settled can be frustratingly elusive.

The play, a series of interlocking monologues and duologues performed ably by Kelly Hickey and Donna Anita Nikolaisen, spans a forty-year continuum in a housing estate in Tallaght. Here new inhabitants find themselves settling in a remote suburban outpost that over time is eventually swallowed up by the growing expanse of Dublin city. Five loosely linked episodes featuring five different women are presented, beginning with the move in 1972 of an Irish woman and her family back to Dublin from London after a ten-year absence.

The broader social significance of moving is explored. For one woman, moving means freedom from the strictures of upper-middle class containment in Terenure, while for a single mother, the Tallaght estate proves a refuge for her daughter who has been terrorized by teens in a previous neighbourhood. A move to the estate can signify a leap up or down into a different social strata, resulting in a range of unforeseen consequences. A woman from Ballymun, who gives up the clubbing life to get hitched, finds herself stranded in Tallaght with her husband married to his insurance job, her only company being her newborn daughter and an ABBA album. Despite the depth of character we’re given, however, these women remain essentially nameless, marked only by the individual circumstances of the first nights in their new homes, and by four different castaway objects that serve as the only working props in the piece.

Bolger’s writing deals with each episode with great sensitivity, though there are times when he seems so intent on drafting a supposedly softer, ‘female’ point of view that the material can veer into a soft-focused sentimentality. The strongest episode dramatically is the one where the stakes aren’t existentially abstract but frighteningly concrete. Nikolaisen’s single mother expresses quite sharply the almost palpable dread felt when she and her young daughter are left to the mercy of a vicious neighbourhood gang of kids, after she dared confront them over their public drinking.

While handling that particular episode with care and nuance, Nikolaisen’s other characters come off with less depth and focus. This is not entirely her fault. Bolger gives her few opportunities to dig into her roles, as they only seem to serve as sounding boards for the more substantial material handled by Hickey. Hickey meanwhile does a considerable job of spanning social contexts and age ranges, breathing believability into some of the less credible aspects of her characters. (For instance, it’s difficult to believe a 51 year-old well-to-do woman from Terenure living in the first decade of the 21st century wouldn’t have come into direct contact with the internet before).

This is also a credit to Mark O’Brien’s direction, which offers a light touch to the performances. O’Brien uses the entirety of the Axis stage effectively, marking out specific locales for each episode that calls up for the audience the architecture and atmosphere of the space a particular character inhabits. He’s assisted here by Conleth White’s adaptable lighting and Marie Tierney’s set, a deliberate disorder constituted of cardboard boxes, tea chests, and bric-a-brac, all of which serve a range of scenic functions while simultaneously underlining the transitory nature of the places we might call home. Tierney’s costuming is also simple and efficient, with the donning of a shawl or cardigan over neutral black tops and leotards enough to summon the shape of a distinct character.

But perhaps the moment that provided the most impact took place before the play itself began. As a sort of curtain raiser before each performance, a woman chosen beforehand is invited up onstage to share with the audience a brief, prewritten anecdote about her own real first night in a new home. [These are selected from submissions to the Tea Chests and Dreams: Writing Competition.] On the night of this performance, a woman described in simple, sturdy prose her family’s first night, many years ago, in their new house, and how one of their first pieces of furniture, a cinderblock, served to symbolize those tentative steps towards making a house a home. This brief, unadorned reminiscence firmly captured what Bolger and his company spends an hour and a half trying to express: the unique power that the idea of home holds for all of us.

Jesse Weaver

  • Review
  • Theatre

Tea Chests and Dreams by Dermot Bolger

11 - 14 April (Axis); 20 and 21 April (Civic)

Produced by Axis: Ballymun
In Axis: Ballymun

Directed by Mark O'Brien

Lighting Design: Conleth White

Set Design: Marie Tierney

With: Kelly Hickey and Donna Anita Nikolaisen