Not much of a blockbuster

 

REVIEW: Bookworms, The Abbey Theatre

Book clubs have been around for a long time and their function is relatively unchanged, much like that of Farrell’s chosen form – the bourgeois farce. What this group dynamic allows him then, as a manically fretting suburban housewife, Ann (Marion O’Dwyer), and her unemployed builder husband Larry (Phelim Drew) prepare to receive their guests, is a comedy about social anxiety and the constant threat of embarrassment. Books, rather than sex, may be the talking points, but the characters are still fixated with what happens between the covers.

Wealthy widow Dorothy (Deirdre Donnelly) identifies heavily with the life – and more specifically the loves – of Virginia Woolf, for instance.

Insufferable schoolmarm Jennifer (Karen Egan) holds forth on the sentimentality of Harper Lee, bickering all the while with her oleaginous banker husband (Louis Lovett) – to whom Larry is in debt. Larry uses crib notes from Wikipedia for books he hasn’t read, while Ann offers some indispensable literary criticism: “Even you said it was shite,” her husband says of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. “I did not say that,” she replies. “I said it was heavy going.”

Would Farrell’s text give his characters much to chew over? It seems unlikely. It is a depiction of middle-class Irish society on the slide, where drink, ignorance, unremembered confessions, secret romantic indiscretions, unemployment and clunkily engineered misunderstandings all form a knot of tension. The night’s impending meltdown is not only telegraphed far in advance, it is hastened along by Skype calls, with daughter Aisling (Liz Fitzgibbon) periodically appearing on an enormous plasma screen from Australia to ration out more confusion.

If Jim Culleton’s production didn’t begin with a fever of hysteria it might have somewhere to go. But as the play reaches a heavily signalled climax of destruction and its inevitable coda of warm deliverance, the production seems to lose energy, its second act hampered by increasingly circular dialogue and lumpen contrivances. An impressive and endearing cast commit to the show with brio – Karen Egan and Louis Lovett especially – but their efforts deserve better and fresher jokes. The best gag is actually a casting decision, with the role of Larry’s ex-convict brother – a creative but uncontrollably violent soul – nicely played by Michael Glenn Murphy, someone as physically imposing as Ghandi with an eerily similar wardrobe.

“Recession or no recession, we are contented and happy – and this evening is going to be fun,” insists Ann. That sums up the play’s position on the nation’s decline in fortune, less interested in how we got there, but blithely optimistic about how it might be weathered. A man’s debts may even be eased, with some behind the scenes spousal intervention. Such lightly-won comforts will strike a reliably large audience as crowd-pleasing fiction. To borrow from Ann’s vocabulary, though, as a more meaningful satire it’s a load of heavy going. Until July 10