Gaiety Theatre, Dublin
“I knew you were a good man,” Stella tells Noel during this tender adaptation of Maeve Binchy’s 2010 novel. “A man who could mind someone.” This comes as some surprise to Noel (lovably played by Steve Blount), feckless and fidgeting, who is easy going by nature but hard drinking by years of practice. Equally surprising is the news that he is to be a father, with this salty Dublin woman and loose acquaintance, now facing her own death in a hospital oncology ward while pregnant with their baby.
Is she sure it’s his, he ventures. “Do you think if I had a list, I’d pick you?” she counters. Asked to raise the child alone, whom she has already named Frankie, Noel protests that he is resolutely unqualified.
Fans of Maeve Binchy, our national laureate of the bittersweet, might have similar concerns about the guardianship of her work. Here, her adapter Shay Linehan has whittled the cast down to two protagonists, Noel and the social worker Moira Tierney (played by the staggeringly versatile Clare Barrett) with a range of other characters supplied by the duo. Linehan also cut right to the chase: Noel is determined to prove himself a worthy parent, while an over-invested Moira is determined to prove he is not. To be honest, they both make compelling cases.
On a set stretched to fill the Gaiety stage (Breda Cashe's modest production transfers here following a tour of intimate venues), which designer Ciara Murane has given the pastel colours and simple geometries of a kindergarten class, Noel's approach can be similarly elementary, willing to do everything it takes "to be the best mother I can be".
Similarly, director Peter Sheridan prefers to keep things cosy, treating Noel's alcoholism in comically wobbling interludes and repentant hangovers. Noel, however, has been barred and threatened with arrest for his drinking, and a braver show would have included more insidious transformations. This production prefers to tilt sunnily towards redemption. As the over-invested social worker, Barrett's Moira hints at complicated family dynamics, herself the daughter of a critical and distant mother, yet still adamantly disapproves of single parenthood.
That attitude, together with an automatic deference to religion (even an AA meeting ends on a prayer), may seem as safely confined to the 1980s as the costumes. But, like Noel’s alcoholism, there’s a shameful culture beneath its surface from which we are still reeling.
With its gentle, involving nature and its warm comic performances, Minding Frankie is more inclined towards uplift, yanking so hard on your heartstrings that it draws applause and gasps throughout its benign performance. Protective and reassuring, it shields us from harsher realities, determined to care for us as best it can.
- Until June 17th