Fred and Alice
Bewley’s Café Theatre, Dublin ****
Some relationships shouldn’t work, yet somehow do. Take the story of Fred and Alice, two people who find each other in a mental-care facility. “They said I was great for Fred. I brought him out of himself,” the hyper-ebullient Alice says of her chronically withdrawn companion. “He was good for me, too. He pushed me back into myself a bit.” John Sheehy’s whirling comedy – which he also directs for Call Back Theatre – is as concerned with dependency and responsibility as this unlikely compatibility. Some of that spills into the form of the show itself: sensitive to psychological detail and the realities of social care, it treats them with imaginative and escapist theatricality, like a documentary seen in a dream.
Although never confirmed as autistic, Fred is distant, obsessional and given to reciting litanies of detail, and Sheehy makes him another satisfying contradiction: someone who is articulate about being incommunicative. It lets Ciaran Bermingham give a superb and moving performance, using his soft features and steady eyes to play a character rather than a condition. Alice is less persuasively drawn, a model of bipolar disorder who we first meet “on the whirligig” but who will later sink deep into depression. Cora Fenton gives a spirited performance, a blur of speech and exposition, but when one sequence confines her to a compulsive counting game it feels as though the characters have become mixed up.
Psychological disorder can be tricky terrain for a dramatist, but Sheehy’s keener interest lies in childlike characters busily creating their own world. That may be why they vaguely recall Enda Walsh’s outsiders Pig and Runt in Disco Pigs, while Sheehy uses freewheeling devices that delight and chill. Cut off from the world, Fenton twirls slowly like the ballerina in a music box; another conversation, as they prepare to move in together, is presented with finger puppets; and finally, we see them floating through the windows of a wendy house.
This is clever and absorbing stuff, nudging at a more provocative piece about disability rights. Neither plotting nor payoff are well developed, though, ending on such a glib note that it can’t seem to contain all its elements. “Nobody knows how or why the brain decides it’s music,” Fred says of arbitrary sounds and the mysteries of harmony, and although the play can’t solve it either, this is still a charming encounter led by an encouraging, unconventional melody.
Until February 23rd