Crestfall review: An unnecessary dip into depravity

Mark O’Rowe’s unloved and long unpublished play has finally returned from the dark. Perhaps it might have stayed there

 Siobhán Cullen,  Kate Stanley Brennan and  Amy McElhatton in  Mark O’Rowe’s Crestfall. Photograph:  Stephen Cummiskey

Siobhán Cullen, Kate Stanley Brennan and Amy McElhatton in Mark O’Rowe’s Crestfall. Photograph: Stephen Cummiskey

 

Mick Lally Theatre, Galway

★★

Few people were in any hurry to revisit Crestfall, Mark O’Rowe’s impossibly bleak evocation of a depraved Dublin underworld (this one more mythic than criminal). Told by three loosely connected, searching women, the monologue play was critically unloved when it opened in 2003, and, for a long time after, almost untraceable. It resurfaced in 2011, in a substantially changed published version, reconceived as a play of surging rhyming verses – similar to 2007’s Terminus – and now, mercifully, with less bestiality.

O’Rowe was modest about his improvements. “A little better, anyway,” he wrote of the new version. “Or not much worse, in any case.”

Now that it returns to professional production, it’s hard to think of a pithier critique. If director Annabelle Comyn’s efforts are to reclaim the play for the canon in this brisk staging for Druid, they may be unnecessary. Go to any hour-long piece of theatre in a room above a pub these days and you will discover a new wave of O’Rovian monologues, many in gritty urban verse, as another generation discovers that talk is cheap.

If this revival is to stake a claim for renewed relevance, in a world of degradation, gender inequality and collapsing authority, the Chthonic fantasy still seems too acridly extreme to map seriously. Designer Aedín Cosgrove has given the three speakers a confined world, a corrugated metal box, in burnt orange, that resembles a shipping container; costume designer Doreen McKenna has given them uniform grey dresses, like inmates of a Laundry; each is a recogniseable evocation of hell.

The play is less tethered to earthly horror. Here Kate Stanley Brennan’s Olive begins a day in the life of an apocalyptic town, ashamed of her good-natured, roundly abused husband, Jungle, and keen to relapse in wanton promiscuity – her sexual desires, she tells us with grim good humour, were primed by incestuous abuse.

Elsewhere the dehumanised denizens of Crestfall move in a ghoulish procession towards the execution of a horse. They are nervously pursued by Siobhán Cullen’s worried Alison, who realises her young son is to deliver the coup de grace, in revenge for a life-changing kick. The story is concluded by Amy McElhatton’s Tilly, a prostitute and an addict with a heart of gold, who finally seems more like a camera to the events than a participant, describing an explosive crescendo of bloody recriminations and revenge. 

In performance, Stanley Brennan is inclined to lean on the rhymes, like a ringing bell, making her proudly damaged Olive a declamatory orator. Cullen lets them slip by, unstressed and more effective, her character given a more rushing, desperate quest. Both are given an over-determined sense of self-insight, though, which can sounds like commentary on the overwriting.

Jungle’s later violence makes him “the man I wanted him to become”, Olive notes for anyone new to the concept of irony, as he reduces her face to pulp, while Alison, in a more affecting moment, follows one writerly phrase with a self-effacing, “Do you hear me, trying to be clever?” 

You can argue that, if Crestfall matters, it is because the play itself is much less apologetic. Here, women are not bystanders, but agents; victims certainly, but relaying their side of the story. It’s just a shame about the story, a fetishistic dip into Stygian depths, which might have been better left there.

Runs until July 29 then tours

This article was amended on July 21st to correct a factual error