The New Irish Playbook: A Varied Look at Roads Less Travelled

Thursday 2nd August 2018 at the Etcetera Theatre, Camden.

⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2

The New Irish Playbook is a collection of six short plays from Joe O’Neill and Little Shadow Theatre Company, played in sequence across sixty minutes. Each play is self-contained but some seem nicely linked thematically and all of them deal with interesting human experiences. Most also contain a nice twist and all of them are engaging, but as with most collections the quality across the work varies. With this in mind, I’ve chosen to review in an unconventional format – evaluating each play as an independent, to give credit where due to the strongest pieces in this collection.

Coming Out – ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

A great tongue-in-cheek opener, O’Neill turns expectations on their head to deliver a ‘coming out’ tale that strays from the path most travelled – there’s some well planted comedy and a final moment from a deflected Adam Tyrrell and a sweet Conor Hanley to warm the heart.

Twenty Minutes Waiting – ⭐️⭐️⭐️

A young couple await news of their future held in a tiny plastic stick. Covering recognisable ground in looking at an anxious couple facing an uncertain future, this piece features a strong cast in a strong willed and exasperated Jasmine Glesson and an infantile non-committer Ben Cooper, but feels a little too much like an Eastenders excerpt of Kat and Alfie.

Our Child – ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Possibly my favourite piece in the collection, this short snippet takes an inventive futuristic approach to a pre-natal check-up, giving way to unexpected news which balances comedy with real issues before ending with a comic twist. Kendall Kennedy and Conor Hanley are well suited as a Yin and Yang couple who bicker a little but show affection too, which creates some nice comedy – especially when contrasted with Joe O’Neill as the straight-talking doctor. A problem area lies in the fleeting reference to an under-represented minority, attached to flippant, borderline offensive lines, but the reference does arguably give a credible portrayal of the challenges posed for parents by relatively rare revelations of identity. Overall, the unusual narrative feels fresh and entertaining – but I did feel it ended a little prematurely – I wanted to find out the results!

Ignorance in Riches – ⭐️⭐️

An uncomfortable narrative – but lacking in the required depth to make this a justified glimpse into the world of a deluded racist. The character is flippant, awkward and unlikeable – but also recognisable; he’s the guy down at the pub who’s there till closing, philosophising and declaring their affinity with everything on God’s green earth while betraying every flaw they possess even while singing their own praises. There’s a nice little moment of realisation played very well by O’Neill who lets a thousand thoughts travel across his features in sixty seconds, and there’s a clear, considered connection made between ingrained adult flaws and childhood experiences, but for me, a narrative like this isn’t really suitable for such a short piece, as it comes across as under-developed and lacking in real connection with the complexity of the controversial subject matter.

I’m the Hero – ⭐️⭐️⭐️

To O’Neill’s credit, our lone character does tell us that if we’re not into superheroes and comics, this might lose us, and I did feel a little out of the loop with this one. That said, this piece handles a sensitive topic with much more feeling than Ignorance in Riches – the writing is more nuanced and better serves its complex and sobering subject matter, but the framing of the story around comic book heroes might be a little out of reach for some. Adam Tyrrell gives a performance which finely balances unease and vulnerability with shocking revelations and wry humour to tell us a sad, sad story.

In the Garden of the Engagement – ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

A very strong duo deliver this comic finale exploring the tragedies of love. Conor Hanley returns and proves himself the strongest member of the cast as a whole with a marked departure from his previous two roles in this collection. Here, he’s an endearingly tragic geek type, yet to experience the world as he’s too busy lingering in the garden at a wedding, pining for something he can never have. Another wedding guest arrives to the garden – a straight-talking, ball-busting, loud know-it-all played by Lesley Moore, whose brutal delivery gets big laughs and perfectly matches the strength of Hanley’s comic characterisation. Yet while Moore’s character is full of rude home truths for this tragic figure hiding from reality, there’s another twist from O’Neill, who proves Moore’s strong independent female act to be just as false as removed geek-boy’s; they’re both very much in the same boat filled with holes.

So The New Irish Playbook is a bit of a mixed bag which seeks to explore a diverse range of characters and subjects through some underwhelming pieces mixed in with some strong new writing. O’Neill displays a witty mind working hard to think outside the box when it comes to portraying everyday life and relatable themes, but there needs to be a more consistent sense of departure from the norm to elevate the whole collection. I stopped giving half star ratings a fair few months back, but I’m making an exception here as the nature of the show puts an overall judgement at risk of doing a disservice to a collective work like this.

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