The Last Return: Sonya Kelly has crafted a shocking and very funny play

Review: It will make you think twice about what high culture means in the world outside the theatre building


Mick Lally Theatre, Galway
Rating: 4/5

A small group gathers incrementally in the foyer of a theatre, each one hopeful for a ticket to the final showing of Oppenheimer’s Return to Hindenburg. If you don’t recognise the signposting for the fictional composition — the father of the atomic bomb meets the historic airship disaster — still the escalating behaviours in Sonya Kelly’s play The Last Return won’t come as a surprise.

By the time the queue is three people long, one patient queue-member observes: “Systems collapse. Chaos prevails. Tyranny takes hold. Then next thing you know… well, I refer you to the last 400 years of European history.” It would be an injustice to the endless surprises of Kelly’s play to reveal exactly how the pursuit of a high-quality cultural experience turns political. Suffice to say that colonialism has a lot to answer for.

Designer Francis O’Connor achieves a rare feat of inversion with his meticulously detailed set. The dramatic black curtains cloak a convincing replica of the foyer outside, with polished graphite surfaces and a simple black desk at which a stoic Ticket Person (the passive aggressively politic Anna Healy) sits, refusing to be moved by any plea for special treatment. Each time she intones “I am the ticket person”, it gets funnier and funnier.

Newspaper Man (a sober Bosco Hogan) — an ageing Oppenheimer expert with bladder issues — is first in the queue, an educated innocent who does not expect the desperate machinations unleashed by Umbrella Woman (the brilliantly pinched Fiona Bell) or Military Man (the impassioned Fionn Ó Loingsigh), who also have their reasons for wanting to see the performance. She took two buses! He flew! A Woman in Pink (Naima Swaleh) sits silently at the top end of the queue, but she can’t speak English so she doesn’t count.


Of course, those we ignore can surprise us. They can plot behind our back, subvert the dynamics of power and change our perspective, even if it is too late for concrete action. So it is with the comic vehicle that Kelly has crafted for her shocking and very funny play, which will make you think twice about what high culture means in the world outside the theatre building, where there are more important wars, with more devastating consequences, bring fought on the borders of Europe.

Runs at the Mick Lally Theatre as part of Galway International Arts Festival until Saturday, July 23rd, and at the Traverse Theatre as part Edinburgh Festival Fringe from Thursday, August 4th, to Sunday, August 28th

Sara Keating

Sara Keating

Sara Keating, a contributor to The Irish Times, is an arts and features writer