The Road to Skibbereen

Sun 10th – Mon 25th August 2014

reviews

Ben Horton

at 17:16 on 11th Aug 2014

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With its award-winning reputation and idiosyncratic tagline, “Reaching for the stars with your trainers in the fridge,” I was optimistic that The Road to Skibbereen would be a welcome addition to the Fringe. Telling the story of a girl with learning difficulties, who is brought up by her increasingly confused, Alzheimer’s afflicted mother, this could have been a production laced with stereotypes of the mentally ill. Instead Angela Walsh’s script skilfully negotiated the potential pitfalls of writing such characters and managed to deal with emotional and social issues that went beyond a discussion of mental illness.

Foremost among these was the concept of guilt, as main character Lianna (Jessica Corcoran) became convinced that the strain she caused her mother led to her Alzheimer’s. This theme was counterpointed by scenes in which Lianna’s drama class studied Lady Macbeth’s descent into insanity, with tragic parallels drawn between that character and Lianna’s mother.

Despite the amusing tagline, this was not exactly a light-hearted production. Discrimination against disabled people was dealt with frequently whilst the final scenes saw the action escalate with tragic rapidity. There were moments of humour, however, not least in the role of Stefan (James Price) whose conviction that he was Doctor Who often extracted chuckles from the audience. Marianne’s (Geraldine Moloney-Judge) misreading of Lady Macbeth’s “Out damn spot” speech as a verbal attack on her pet dog also brought much needed relief from the rather more depressing main thrust of the drama.

Therein lay a slight problem with the show, namely a discomfort on my part about where the line lay between humour and caricature in the presentation of the less central disabled characters. Their roles as providers of light relief often meant that the distinction between laughing at them or with them was ambiguously blurred; there were several moments when individuals in the audience awkwardly laughed in isolation.

Having said that, perhaps Walsh would argue that this ambiguity existed intentionally to force the audience to consider again their preconceptions. The writer’s own performance as Lianna’s mother Nora was a particular highlight either way, as she oscillated seamlessly between periods of lucidity and mental confusion. Indeed the acting in general was extremely convincing, accompanied by an imaginative and varied soundtrack. Overall this was a deeply thought-provoking work, which was deftly conveyed by the entire cast and, despite the problematic ambiguity of the comic elements, well worth seeing.

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Ben Hickey

at 09:59 on 12th Aug 2014

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Strands of the Irish folk standard ‘Skibbereen’ waft out of the auditorium doors towards an expectant audience at this afternoon’s performance of Angela Walsh’s ‘The Road to Skibbereen’. This gristly lullaby of lost homelands and unsteady new beginnings acts as the perfect precursor; ‘The Road to Skibbereen’ charts the coming of age of learning-disabled Lianna who is forced to care for her mother as she slowly succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease.

Despite one or two problems, my worries of trauma being laid on with a trowel are ultimately put to rest. Walsh’s play is both a winning personal story and an authentic treatment of difficult societal issues.

Lead Jessica Corcoran is unquestionably the central source of the performance’s vitality, playing Lianna with an unerring, captivating, and deftly measured intensity. Behind her painfully confused expressions it is possible to see a teenage girl slowly coming to grips with the reality of her mother’s illness. Overwrought and slightly clumsy parallels with Lady Macbeth are made during Lianna’s drama lessons at college, but her honest yet incisive and frequently painful questioning of her teacher about possible causality between Lady Macbeth’s madness and her offspring helps to justify the allusion.

It is unquestionably a brave decision to explore the issues of learning disability and Alzheimer’s in one hour-long performance.Walsh’s writing manages to tackle them simultaneously in Lianna's touching coming-of-age narrative, in which she learns both to love herself and to be a parent to her mother.

The depth of Corcoran’s emotional range does serve to overshadow that of some of her counterparts, however. Walsh’s portrayal of the Alzheimer’s-ridden mother, Nora, fails to fully encapsulate the terror that suffering from that condition entails; we feel her bewilderment but not necessarily anything more. The accent of Geraldine Moloney-Judge’s spirited Liverpudlian Jackie, meanwhile, can often be found lapsing into Dublinese.

Nevertheless, the effectiveness of the symbolism involving Nora’s character during the final scenes means that, while the execution of the character may not have been successful, the treatment of Nora’s Alzheimer’s as a broader issue is poignantly managed.

The ending doesn’t leave the audience feeling uplifted but then to have done so would have been to sacrifice some of its brutal honesty. During the play’s closing scenes, Lianna’s confidant Stefan teaches her the art of ‘can’t-dance dancing’, and in a sense this is what we are watching at the play’s end. In spite of the weighty subject matters, ‘The Road to Skibbereen’ is a thought-provoking depiction of characters who take on life’s insurmountable problems with a kind of awkward grace.

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