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The Loved Ones review: Complex, uncomfortable stories brought to life in a refreshing, deceptively simple way

Dublin Theatre Festival 2023: The pace of this assured, entertaining production never falters


The Loved Ones

Gate Theatre

Sarah Bacon’s wonderful design of a farmhouse kitchen in west Clare fills the stage. It is a familiar lived-in space, complete with rain-streamed windows, whistling kettle and glimpses of a 1980s pink hallway and pastel-blue back cloakroom. This is a production as studded with detail as Erica Murray’s four fully imagined characters, who in turn perch on or slump into the set’s ample cushioned couch in her witty, agile play, a co-production between the Gate and Rough Magic.

Nell is the host – an Airbnb superhost, in fact, as she wryly admits in Jane Brennan’s calmly understated anchor performance as a single mother grieving the recent death of her adult son, Robin. She is awaiting the arrival of Orla, her daughter-in-law, to scatter the ashes. But first in the door is Gabby, a student from London (Fanta Barrie, in a nice mix of the casual and charmingly naive), seven months pregnant and with an explosive secret. She is closely followed by Helen Norton, in a deliciously shaded turn as Cheryl-Ann, an overly cheerful middle-aged American who never shuts doors and never stops talking. When Orla arrives she is gratingly self-absorbed; as played by Gráinne Keenan, she becomes more reflective as the play goes on – and, in a later emergency, proves to be both practical and sensitive.

These are four independent women, tough yet vulnerable, self-deprecating and generous, and given enough substance by Murray to make the implausible plot more credible. The witty dialogue is underlined by tight comic timing: Ronan Phelan is directing a tight ship here, aided by the fine creative crew of Bacon, Zia Bergin-Holly (lighting) and Tom Lane (music and sound design).

The pace of this assured, entertaining production never falters. As truths emerge, there is confrontation and rage, heartbreak and disappointment; the women touch on loss and grief, disappointment and betrayal, motherhood, relationships and responsibility. As Nell reveals the social shame her pregnancy caused in 1980s Ireland, she exhorts the young, single Gabby never to feel that shame. Murray has found a refreshing and deceptively simple way to bring complex and uncomfortable stories to life. While all seems perhaps too neat as the play closes, there is enough ambiguity to keep us thinking and enough humour to keep us smiling.


Continues at the Gate, as part of Dublin Theatre Festival, until Saturday, October 21st