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ONLY OUR OWN – Arts Theatre, WC2

ECHOES OF ANGLO-IRISH ANGST:   CRITIC STRUGGLES TO SYMPATHIZE
Full personal disclosure: having a longstanding connection with Ireland  I am not a natural empath for the Anglo-Irish Protestant ascendancy displaced after eight centuries of colonial rule.   Hated the Somerville and Ross chronicles of “The Irish RM” , with that toff sense of entitlement and casually comic portrait of villagers as sly Papist drunkards.  So this play about an Anglo-Irish family “struggling for identity” found me  hampered by a sense that despite the 800-year occupation,   seventy years after Irish  independence the dispossessed descendants should bite the bullet and fit in.

That some of them don’t is the theme of this play by Swedish-born  Ann Henning Jocelyn, now married to an Irish peer in Connemara and catching the echoes of Protestant resentment with a keen foreign ear. Her director – Lars Harald Garthe – is Norwegian,  and the theme of a claustrophobic family trapped within social change echoes both Ibsen and Strindberg.   It lacks, though , the eloquent intensity which makes us feel for Julie, Hedda or Nora:  the first half in particular is so lugubrious that you just want to shake the lot of them.  No Irish sparkle here.

It is set between 1989 and today: Meg and Andrew (Maef Alexander and Cornelius Garrett) run a salmon fishery in Connemara, with the grim matriarch Lady Eliza  uttering cut-glass snobberies at the head of the table.  She wants to tell the sullen teenage granddaughter Titania (Alex Gilbert) about  1922, when as a child she saw the rebels burn down her family seat, shoot her brother and give them fifteen minutes to grab their treasures and leave their ancestral lands.   In a well-crafted monologue she writes a letter, but only later does it find its mark.

For Titania is  resents the isolation of her childhood (no school till 11, then Cheltenham) and mocks her parents‘ toxic snobberies: chillingly, they let a local craftsman stand outside in the rain waiting for his fee, claiming “Their Church won’t allow them to enter our houses”.  The grandmother’s funeral in their moribund Protestant church is “family only”  to prevent Catholic villagers coming.  Weirdly, though, in all their explanations of how the locals are “different”not one of them ever mentions what is going on through the 1990’s in the North: bombings, ceasefires, Orange parades.  Anyhow,   Titania rebels, has two children by a local farmer,  and dumps them on the parents to go to London, call herself Tania and hook an investment banker.   Whereon the parents find a new role,  start a playgroup, make friends in the village and send little Aoife and Cahal to the nun-run village school.  The forbidding shade of Lady Eliza and her 70-year-old grudge fades: but  Tania comes back, and reverts to genetic type by being vile and snobbish in a different way.

Henning Jocelyn is rather too keen to hammer home a moral about reconciliation and tidy up the end, though, and  there’s always an alarm bell when a character starts quoting her therapist and going on about her “fledgling soul” as Titania does:    “ I don’t exist…I”m just an empty shell without a place in the world”.   Hmmm.

box office 0207 836 8463  to 1 Feb

Rating    three  3 Meece Rating

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