Róisín Ingle on . . . the coping class


It was the title of the play that drew me in. It was the title that sent me in the direction of Dublin’s Parnell Square alone on a clear spring night, the moon shining as though it thought it was the sun, the stars visible in their formations if you knew anything about that kind of thing. The Coping Class. I feel like that sometimes. Apart from when I feel I’m not coping at all.

I didn’t even know there was a theatre in the Teachers’ Club but there is, a tiny one. I sat near the front on the bench style seating counting about 15 others behind me.

I felt the pre-theatre dread cover me like a cloak, that familiar urge to escape, but there were already two people on the stage even though the play hadn’t started yet. An Indian man silently counting out €20 and €10 notes on the table and his wife writing in an A4 pad. I was committed now and by committed I mean trapped.

I generally find theatre tough going. Unless there are songs. When there are songs and some decent choreography I can always find something to enjoy. Unless it’s Chess. How that musical about an international chess game and adultery ever got made and how it ever made a penny for Tim Rice and the boys from Abba is a mystery to me. I Know Him So Well is one of my all-time favourite songs but even it can’t do anything to save Chess. It’s the biggest mystery of musical theatre. Bigger even than Starlight Express.

There was nothing on the stage apart from the table, no set to speak of, just blackness. You could tell The Coping Class was made on a shoestring, a semi-pro affair. The actors might make some money at the end of the run but then again they might not.

The Coping Class won’t feature in any awards ceremonies, it won’t be reviewed, it won’t get written about by people who say “the conceit of the piece centred around . . . ” But I liked it anyway.

What it centres around is these four couples, the Indian Muslims, a happy-go-lucky pair from the inner city, a posh pair from the outer city and a Polish woman with her Irish husband.

All four of the women are pregnant for the first time and we follow them through their pregnancies. We find out about their prejudices and their struggles, financial and otherwise, we see them coping and failing to cope and trying to find their place. They eat Lidl meatloaf and declare it won’t be like this forever, like, and they get angry and they fall about the place laughing.

We see some stand-out acting performances from a cast of 10 with honourable mentions to the electrifying Aislinn O’Byrne and the gently present Ashley Xie. We witness a tight, often laugh-out-loud-funny script that speaks of an Ireland a lot of art doesn’t seem to know what to do with these days.

The young playwright Grace Harrison knows. The director, her husband Peter, tells me later that the play was inspired by a moment on a bus when Grace saw an Arab woman sit down to begin breastfeeding her baby, covering herself and the baby with a shawl.

A man came over to her, pulled the shawl away, shouted “look what she is doing” to the rest of the bus.

It made Grace think about the conversation that might have happened when the woman got home and the solidarity we can feel for strangers on a bus and how we’re all more the same than we are different.

Of course when I came out of the theatre the first taxi that stopped was driven by a black taxi driver and we talked racism all the way home.

“It starts with me,” he said, pointing at himself. “I don’t feel inferior to you, I know I am not inferior to you so therefore if racism happens it doesn’t bother me. I am the starting point.”

He told me something that happened recently in Dublin, a mother hailing his cab with her two young daughters who took one look at his black face and said they weren’t getting in. Their mother man-handled them into the taxi, told them not to be so stupid. “That happened and I thanked her for it and that is the Ireland that I appreciate, the one I’ve lived and worked in for six years,” the driver said.

It’s the new Ireland. An Ireland imperfectly on display for one more night in a tiny theatre should you find yourself at a loose end in Dublin’s Parnell Square.

* This article was amended on Saturday March 15th

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