Review by Heather O'Donoghue

It is a measure of the ambition and expertise of Colette Lardner-Browne and the Abingdon Drama Club that its members have pulled off a highly successful production of a play as challenging as Irish playwright Marina Carr’s Portia Coughlan. Carr is an internationally renowned and award-winning dramatist, celebrated as much for her reimaginings of classical works as for her original compositions. This makes for a densely literary theatrical experience, full of literary allusions and poetical language, as well as a thrillingly dramatic one; the Abingdon Drama Club have risen brilliantly to the play’s many challenges.

The play opens with Portia herself, drunk at ten in the morning, and her well-meaning husband Raphael; they are exchanging vicious recriminations. It is Portia’s thirtieth birthday, and Raphael has bought her an expensive bracelet which she contemptuously spurns. This is perhaps the first challenge of the play: Portia is very hard to love, and the audience’s sympathy is initially with Raphael, played with complete conviction by Tony Green. But it soon emerges that Portia is not only disturbed and haunted, but actually damaged, by the death of her twin brother Gabriel, who drowned himself on their birthday fifteen years ago.

Laura King as Portia carries the play, her grief, despair and bitterness holding the audience spellbound as her speeches gradually reveal the terrible truth about her brother’s death, and their obsessive and destructive relationship. King is supported by a very strong cast of very strong women characters. Portia’s mother Marianne (played by Lynne Smith) is herself bearing the burden of bereavement, and Smith movingly enacts her sadness and incomprehension in the face of her daughter’s behaviour. Marianne’s evil mother-in-law (cleverly and compellingly played by Fiona Tracey as both hilarious and horrible) nurses ancient grievances against her in laws and a comical partiality for the singing of ‘Count’ John McCormack. Portia’s aunt, Maggie May, the prostitute with a heart of gold, is beautifully done by Lissy Coppock (and hats off to the wardrobe supremos for all those marvellous leopardskin prints and fishnet tights!); Charlie Griffiths makes the most of Portia’s loyal friend Stacia (nicknamed the Cyclops of Coolinarney because of her one eye - another classical reference).

The male characters, without exception failed, flawed or inadequate in one way or another, present another challenge to the actors, who nevertheless provide the audience with some memorable and sharply-honed cameos: not only poor Raphael, so inadequate in the face of Portia’s unhappiness, but also Maggie May’s mousy, fastidious husband Senchil (not born, but knitted on a wet Sunday, according to the raucous Maggie), played by Richard Wilson; both characters - like Portia’s long-term but unregarded lover Damon, played by Michael Ward - could seem merely pathetic if handled with less skill and sensitivity. Portia’s father, Sly Scully, is vividly portrayed by Kieran Pigott as a blusterer completely out of his depth in the emotional entanglements of his family’s dynamics (and his mother’s unerring gift for stirring up old hostilities) and the shallowly flirtatious cowboy barman Fintan Goolan is brought to more complex life by Zoltán Köll?. And finally, every member of the cast deserves congratulation for maintaining wholly credible Irish accents throughout. There’s an expert voice coach or two in Abingdon!

The atmosphere of the play swings abruptly between dark malice, soaring lyricism and broad comedy. This production manages such shifts beautifully. Laura King delivers an impassioned paean to the River Belmont which so dominates Portia’s psyche as she almost sings how she has watched it throughout all its moods and seasons; this is an unforgettable high point in the production. Its power is greatly aided by the mesmerizing backdrop, shimmering and rippling like the river itself, and the clever split stage perfectly accommodates Carr’s mercurial succession of short scenes. The ghostly appearances of the dead twin Gabriel (Cameron Burne) are extremely well done, with evocative and chilling musical sound effects, and the scene in which a body is retrieved from the River Belmont is a genuine coup de theatre at which the audience actually gasped. The quieter funeral scene, with Portia’s colourful family all dressed in black, carefully grouped like a Victorian photograph, will stay with me for a long time.

So, strong performances, imaginative production values, and a challenging play: one could not ask for more. This was a production to remember.