One Good Turn: a reassuring comedy about long-term illness

Review: Una McKevitt’s wry play explores the rarer, brighter shades of life caring for an ill family member

Catherine Byrne and Liz FitzGibbon in Una McKevitt’s One Good Turn, live on the  Abbey stage. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

Catherine Byrne and Liz FitzGibbon in Una McKevitt’s One Good Turn, live on the Abbey stage. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh


One Good Turn ★ ★ ★
Abbey Theatre, Dublin

In One Good Turn, the Abbey Theatre’s reassuring comedy about a family dealing with long-term illness, there’s a sense some things have already been done to death. Our first sight of Fiona (Liz FitzGibbon), unemployed and recently moved back into her parents’ house, is at the breakfast table, cringing at an interview on the radio. The interviewer leads their grieving subject through a transparently sensational line of questioning. “Was it a terribly tragic death?” they ask, with the empathy of a vulture.

Fiona’s flashes of annoyance sum up the suspicions of Una McKevitt’s wry script, which explores how to tell a story about sickness that doesn’t involve a cathartic purging of fear and pity in the face of loss. Seemingly, the ambition is to bring in rarer, brighter shades of life caring for an ill family member.

For instance, in this busy household where Fiona’s father Frank (Bosco Hogan) has emphysema, it’s established early on through director Emma Jordan’s painstaking direction that any misplaced item – a bag of sugar, an eaten tub of ice-cream, an unplugged socket – is to figuratively trip a wire and be reprimanded by Brenda, the tenacious matriarch played by Catherine Byrne. That’s not to reduce the characters’ relationships to a series of gags. When left alone, Brenda – in a nicely judged performance by Byrne – is allowed to weep at the challenges of a woman who’s become her husband’s carer. “I just feel like we have more problems than everyone else,” she says.

Brenda’s worries don’t end at Frank’s health issues. While Fiona is adrift, uncertain in her career and nagged by self-doubt in Fitzgibbon’s heartfelt performance, her sister Aoife (Aoibhéann McCann) has returned after a surprise break-up in London. Together they provide the play’s most compelling frisson, the former impatient and harried by duties of care, the latter so absent-minded in McCann’s comic performance as to accidentally swallow her father’s pills.

There are interesting ideas here about the loss of control of a difficult situation. “Old people. They’re always sick or dying!” shrieks Aoife, who herself is hazardously navigating life since losing the careful watch of her ex-boyfriend. Interestingly, such formations of dependency seem to begin at home. Only seconds after Brenda steps out to assist a dying neighbour does Frank already try to summon her back. Some expect others to be at their beck and call.

In eschewing traditionally grim displays of suffering and tragedy, One Good Turn allows for touching moments of compassion. Watch how Hogan’s Frank washes over with fatherly protection when Fiona tells him: “I don’t think I have any imagination”.

With these good intentions, however, the play is unsure of how to forge a meaningful conclusion, leaving its overall impression as low-impact. That shouldn’t be interpreted as some kind of calcification of McKevitt - who caught attention as a searching documentary theatre-maker and counted experimental company Pan Pan as peers - into an old-fashioned playwright. The devotion to tell stories differently is still there.

One Good Turn is sold out until Saturday. Performances on Friday 25th and Saturday 26th June are live-streamed. On-demand until 10th July