Flying fish

Short, but not mercifully so, Hilary Fannin’s new play at The Bush courses through the disillusion, despair and hope of a loosely knit family in 1970s Dublin. Both disparate and desperate, they are unified only by the loss several years before of the head of the family. Some of them want to believe that he is lost at sea, others that he is lost to the sea. This absent character and, by implication, the sea provide the focus for the play’s faith and desperation whose expression is by turn poetic and acerbic.

The adolescent Stephanie (Viviana Verveen) feels the absence of her father more acutely than others, her recollections of him wrapped in the uncritical hue of childhood. Rolling on her ankles, and hands wrapping up in juvenile uncertainty, Verveen draws upon the simplistic and remains sketchy. In the main, though, it is her journey through faith that forms the backbone to the play and this is conveyed with understanding and economy.

Emma McIvor as Madeleine in Mackerel Sky
It is only Stephanie who believes her father will return, only she who maintains faith in her convent education at the hands of “the Sisters of the Halitosis”, as her grandmother, Tom, describes them, warning somewhat alarmingly that “They’ll bleach you and scald you and drown you in linen.”

Meanwhile, Ruth Hegarty’s sassy and Mamie (though “past it”) is the only one who knows the real whereabouts of her husband, about which she keeps quiet. She is also the only one who doesn’t declare her obvious lack of religious conviction. The implication here seems to be that her lack of faith on both counts is well-founded.

Though set in Ireland, the underlying religious tone is a red herring, serving only to underline the play’s theme of lost faith and hope. When Stephanie is asked the whereabouts of Tom’s “silver-plated inlaid teaspoons in a mahogany box”, she relays that her mother, Mamie, has pawned them to pay the ‘phone bill, “But,” she adds, ”you’ll have to ask St. Anthony about that.” While this could be seen as a touching faith, Fannin deliberately throws at us her naiveté when she asks her wayward sister, Maddie, the meaning of “Happiness is a tight pussy”, as emblazoned on the chest of the latter’s boyfriend’s T-shirt.

Emma McIvor’s prickly Maddie, who does her utmost to rebel against her rebellious mother, provides the best of the plays many humorous exchanges. She declares that her illegitimate child is to be called Led. “As in ‘astray’?” asks Tom. “No, as in Zeppelin.” When Tom, the rotting matriarch whose authority has been undone by the disappearance of her son, declares “My mind has been eaten by the rat of decay”, her grandson Jack’s laconic consolation “Bummer” highlights the banality of the previous line.

A disarmingly clumsy self-consciousness always threatens to undermine this play, but the message survives largely intact. Stephanie, finally accepting that her father is unlikely to return, also recognises that sometimes you have to give up, that blind faith is a burden. She craves to believe in her father as she holds out against the lack of faith of those around her, and finally lets go. When Mamie is asked “In a word, what’s it all about?” she lilts “Family, Lar, family and faith.” It is, and they are all but destroyed.

Graham Thomas


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