PETER CRAWLEYreviews The New Electric Ballroomat the Druid Theatre as part of the Galway Arts Festival
The New Electric Ballroom
Galway Arts Festival: Druid Theatre
For a writer with such remarkable power over words, and an unerring ability to weave them into twisted visions or unsettling fictions, Enda Walsh has very little trust in the things. "What are we if we're not our stories?" asked his startling play The Walworth Farce, but those stories were ridiculous lies, rehearsed and repeated each day until they finally flew apart.
In The New Electric Ballroom, a natural companion piece, the stories are real but no less a constant performance or a chore. In a remote fishing village, three sisters of advancing age are holed up at home within a torrent of talk, sharing out a story of lost love at a 1950s dance hall. Equal parts absurd, funny and brutal, the telling is split between them, as Rosaleen Linehan's commanding Breda, Val Lilley's shrunken Clara and Catherine Walsh's sharp, sheltered Ada prompt each other, supplying costumes, lights and sound effects.
Always alive to the theatrical fillip of a performance within a performance, Walsh directs the story as a surreal and humiliating ritual. If the strange routine seems familiar, Sabine Dargent's set amplifies its Beckettian echoes. More factory than kitchen, her post-apocalyptic aesthetic is offset by hot pink props, so incongruously vibrant under Sinead McKenna's delicately queasy lights as to be frankly disturbing. Even a neon-hued sponge cake looks radioactive. In fact, the world may be contaminated. In a rare moment of succinctness, the lovelorn visiting fishmonger Patsy (who Mikel Murfi turns into a brilliant virtuoso of nervous prattle) says, "Things are odd. Outside".
Inside, though, things are no more even: from the moment Ada is seen holding a lipstick to Breda like a dagger, Walsh seems to be having wicked fun with gender roles, power roles and theatrical roles, consoling his shut-away spinsters with biscuits and the Virgin Mary, then later subjecting the Irish phenomenon of Showbands to a dazzlingly ironic treatment. Is nothing sacred? The thrust of the play reaches us in blurted verbiage, lengthy pauses and - in Walsh and Linehan's case - devastatingly controlled delivery of its quieter moments. We lose our innocence as soon as we leave the womb, words simply fill the silence, we are ultimately alone. Walsh's added signature is that we talk ourselves into corners while our personal narratives are ill-fitting labels: we are "stamped by story", "boxed by words".
Although one ferociously funny set-piece leaves the quiet poetry of its finale looking wan, the strength of Druid's English language premiere is in its ambiguity, allowing Walsh's ideas to percolate through layers of arresting surrealism. That it takes a while for the mind to disentangle them is no bad thing. For all Walsh's wayward imagination, his words and images snag on the unconscious for a reason. These warped fictions of identity and routine tap into something darkly universal: in short, the story of our lives.
• Runs until 26 July