Dear Arabella: Softer, subtler, but Marie Jones sharp-eyed as ever

Belfast International Arts Festival review: Three lonely women gain a new sense of purpose

DEAR ARABELLA

Lyric Theatre
★ ★ ★
You don't have to be alone to be lonely. Jean lives in a noisy, densely populated street in working-class Belfast, while Elsie leads a quiet life with her husband, Cecil, and prematurely widowed Arabella takes refuge from the world in her affluent family home beside the sea. Surrounded by evidence of postwar tragedy, these lonely women have little in common. Then, on a single day, a random act of kindness gives each of them a renewed sense of purpose and a means for regarding their mundane existences through a significantly altered prism.

Set in 1960s, pre-Troubles Belfast, Marie Jones’s new play marks an unexpected departure from the boisterous, raucously comedic style so beloved of Belfast audiences. In three interlocking monologues, the tone is softer and the humour more subtle, although her observational talent for human connections remains as sharp as ever.

Lindsay Posner directs with understated sensitivity to textual rhythms and emerging revelations. The three actors, Katy Tumelty, Laura Hughes and Lucia McAnespie, are seated against the backdrop of a vast, photographic seascape, listening attentively as each, in turn, moves to the narrator's seat.

Jean lives alone with her elderly mother, who spends her days amid a clutter of cheap ornaments, swatting flies. The sun does not shine on their side of the street. Theirs is the dark side. With acute, instinctive perception, Jones endows the character with an engagingly authentic voice and a sardonic sense of humour to which Tumelty responds touchingly and with truth.

As solid, sensible Elsie, Hughes provides the heart of the triangular narrative. Contrary to appearances, she has had her moments of romantic fantasy when working as an usherette at the local cinema. Now her cat, Nelson, is the sole outlet for her affections, since her husband returned from the war silent, uncommunicative and minus an arm. With a smile that could light up the city, Hughes steers her tale to an unexpectedly moving conclusion.

The final chapter of the day is less assured in voice and of arguable narrative relevance, haltingly delivered by McAnespie’s elegant, enigmatic Arabella, whom Jean encounters during her despairing break for freedom.

Uneven though the piece may be, Jones has revealed both a new side to her writing and an enduring ability to shine light into darkness.

Runs until Saturday, November 10th