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Audrey or Sorrow review: Marina Carr daringly wraps Gothic comedy around a harrowing core

Theatre: Aisling O’Sullivan, Marie Mullen, Anna Healy, Nick Dunning, Zara Devlin and Patrick Martins star in a bravura production that shouldn’t work but mostly does

Audrey or Sorrow

Abbey Theatre, Dublin

All facets of Marina Carr’s precious mineral are on display in this startling new play for the Abbey Theatre and Landmark Productions. The part of the drama adjacent to the real world is freighted with the greatest sadness imaginable. First one dead child and then maybe more. But the dominant strain is a school of Gothic comedy that few other playwrights would dare to wrap around such a harrowing core.

We begin somewhere between Jean Genet and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Marie Mullen (pertly nagging) and Anna Healy (saucily unmanageable), dressed in a heightened perversion of children’s party dresses, as, respectively, Grass and Mac, chatter while they pour imagined tea from a toy pot. Something about the tooth fairy. Something about the spare fridge. Later we learn they share this yawning house with another ageless sprite named Purley (Nick Dunning). The experienced actors, under the disciplined hand of director Caitríona McLaughlin, deftly avoid any allegations of cuteness as the characters, not quite adults but too collected for children, reveal indifferent awareness of the outside world.

It soon becomes clear, as a more ordinary couple (Patrick Martins and Zara Devlin) move through the space, that our first three friends are ghosts. Apparently benign ghosts, confused about their status. Aisling O’Sullivan, never better, is more worrying as the ratchet-voiced Audrey – part Dietrich vamp, part interior banshee. Her impersonation of a keening baby chills by skirting, but not quite achieving, utter verisimilitude. Her reply to an inquiry about who is dead in this universe dares to reach for penny-dreadful volumes. “Everyone except us!” One could sense the audience rocking back collectively at an avenger of ancient-Greek proportions.

Initially, while the absurdist humour cranks up, one assumes only dream logic applies. The spirits’ interaction has the quality of Robert Aickman’s weird stories: fully imagined but always just beyond understanding. As the play progresses, however, it becomes clear that all narrative elements click together into a cunning dovetailed architecture. Past is discernible in present. Present in past. The ghost world finds home for those dead and those yet to be born.


So fecund and compelling is the fantastic strain – a pseudo-classical mythology played for intelligent laughs – that one inevitably misses it when the play drags us back to something like reality. No blame attaches to Martins or the fast-rising Devlin (brilliant recently in the film Ann), who work hard at giving us a marriage riddled with the worst imaginable doubts, but, when their characters take over in the closing half-hour, a bit of wind goes out of a hitherto hurtling production.

One nonetheless leaves pumped up by the levels of risk and imagination on display. So much of this bravura production shouldn’t work. Most of it does. Jamie Vartan’s stark set reflects the characters’ misery back to them in mirror glaze. Sinéad Diskin’s sound design is at home to droning catastrophe. Mention should also be made of the most disturbing old-fashioned pram seen on stage since the last time someone staged Edward Bond’s Saved. It deserves its own credit in the programme.

Audrey or Sorrow is at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until Saturday, March 30th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist