Monday, 1 October 2012


I went to Emma Donoghue's play about Irish short story writer Maeve Brennan at The Project on Saturday night, 'The Talk of the Town', produced by Hatch and Landmark with the Dublin Theatre Festival. A very enjoyable two hours of theatre. Catherine Walker as Maeve is suitably gorgeous - Maeve was a stunnner. The actress swings around the stage in a whirl of cigarette smoke and elegance. The play is beautifully choreographed; the cast dances between scenes in the offices of The New Yorker, where Maeve worked, as well as her various apartments; The Algonquin Hotel, where she socialised; and her childhood home in Ranelagh, Dublin.

Maeve Brennan, despite wit, brains and beauty, had demons. These may have been caused by the slip between the modernity of her life in Manhattan in contrast with her upbringing in Catholic, middle class, conservative Dublin. Whatever they were, they undid her by the end of her life. Her demons are on display in this play but I feel we are shown too much of the public side of them. Even at its best, theatre can seem a bit unconvincing sometimes and, while Catherine Walker is very good, I was rarely 100% convinced that I was watching Maeve Brennan. It may be the slipping accent (from London to Dublin to New York); it may be the overemphasis on cigarettes and alcohol as indications of character, but I would like to have seen more opportunity for quiet despair in the script; more stilled moments.

Some of the most endearing scenes in the piece are when Maeve is at her typewriter, bashing away and lost, in the best sense of what that means to a writer. Catherine Walker definitely captures Maeve's feistiness and spirit and she delivers some of her curse-filled one-liners brilliantly. I, however, would have liked less whirlygigging and more of Maeve enjoying solitary dinners, the kind she described in 'The Long-Winded Lady', her New Yorker column. There was an elegant calm to them which was surely as much Maeve as the drinking, witticisms and dating.

The more moving scenes in the play are the flashbacks to a fictive version of Maeve's childhood which show conflict between her parents. Having read the excellent biography of Maeve some years ago by Angela Bourke, I was left with a different impression of her parents, who were political and dynamic. (I may be mis-remembering her parents' relationship.) Emma Donoghue uses some of Maeve's fiction, interwoven with fact, for those scenes, I think. Maeve is depicted as an only child, for example, which she was not. The scenes are powerful and beautifully acted, particularly by Michèle Forbes, who plays Maeve's mother.

Lorcan Cranitch shines as the sensible and rock-like New Yorker editor William Shawn, who kept on writers because he believed in their talent, no matter how unstable or disruptive they were as individuals. This character is a composite with William Maxwell, the magazine's fiction editor, and Cranitch is a believable, patient father figure in contrast to the chaos enacted by his employees. Owen McDonnell is also very good as St Clair McKelway, Maeve's hard-drinking colleague and short-lived husband.

The set too is great - a hardworking set that the actors roll about to suit their needs, with lots of appropriate props like Martini glasses, suitcases and typewriters. It is plenty atmospheric also, capturing both the excitement of Manhattan and the heaviness of Dublin, which is what the play requires.

It was nice to see Emma Donoghue at the play on Saturday night (she had to buy her own programme - I saw her do it!). The costume designer Peter O'Brien, who did a beautiful job on the costumes, was there too. Maeve was known for simple elegance: black dresses, piled up hair and smart heels. She often wore a red rose in her lapel with lipstick to match. Catherine Walker looks the part for sure.

Sinéad Gleeson writes a wonderful foreword to the play in the programme where she talks about Maeve's life, journalism and her short fiction. In it she mentions a John Updike review of Maeve's short story collection The Springs of Affection where he said she was 'sharp-eyed as a sparrow for the crumbs of human event, the overheard and the glimpsed and guessed-at.' She was all that and much more: a modern Irish woman and writer for us to be so proud of - just like Emma Donoghue.

'The Talk of the Town' runs until the 20th of October.


Insinbad said...

Great review babe.

shaunag said...

Great to be alerted to this, Nuala. Thanks! I am a big fan of Maeve Brennan and Emma Donoghue so will try to get to the play. (also loved the biography by Angela Bourke).