Jilly Morgan’s Birthday Party review: Subversive chill brings unsettling edge to what seems to be a play about love

Theatre: Liam McCarthy’s decades-spanning new play portrays what might or might not have happened at a house party in Limerick in 1983

Jilly Morgan’s Birthday Party

Belltable, Limerick

Plays about parties tend to end badly. Classics such as Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party and Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party make it abundantly clear that nothing good comes from gathering people together and adding alcohol. Parties are where hopes rise to great heights only to fall asunder. The same can be said of Jilly Morgan’s Birthday Party, a new play by Liam McCarthy.

It is a carefully measured story about love, which is an entirely different thing from a love story. Love stories tend to head in a single, predictable direction, whereas McCarthy prefers to journey across the decades from a single inciting event, which is to say what might or might not have taken place at a house party in Limerick in 1983 between his central character, Jack (Patrick Ryan), and the femme fatale of the title, one Jilly Morgan.

Ryan revels in his role, subtly growing from the slightly awkward young man who nearly got the girl, into the embittered and disturbingly sinister old man who finally recognises the chances he has lost or thrown away. He is beautifully crossed on this journey by Kate (Georgina Miller), one of the gang from school, whose appearance from time to time brings all the light Jack cannot see into his life. It is clear that they could have done wonderful things together, but the timing is always off, with Jack stuck in a story of his own making and Kate trying to write a script for herself with a happy ending that never comes.

Directed with a rigorous assurance by Joan Sheehy, the play nods in the direction of Sliding Doors, Peter Howitt’s 1998 film – almost literally in the cool aesthetic of the set and lighting by Paul Keoghan, which balances hints of the Orient with touches of Mondrian to cleverly hold the shifting time frame, all perfectly enhanced by Tom Lane’s cinematic composition.


At times this is almost a one-man show, with lengthy monologues from Ryan; the scenes between Jack and Kate leave you a little frustrated for more, especially as the pair finally approach the brutal recognition of their mutual fate. Place is defined by a reliance on vernacular that resonates well with the audience but ultimately seems somewhat laboured.

Sheehy constantly wrestles things back from a descent into sentimentality, however, allowing a subversive chill to bring a surprisingly unsettling edge to what might initially appear to be a warm and nostalgic reflection on love, life and the passage of time. McCarthy shows an endearing tenderness in his writing, but he is also unafraid to bite, and while there is humour throughout, there is also a disarming depth to his story.

Jilly Morgan’s Birthday Party is at the Belltable, Limerick, until Saturday, May 11th