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The Pull of the Stars review: Sincere and sharply performed adaptation of Emma Donoghue novel

Play breaks little ground theatrically, but few will emerge unmoved or uninterested

The Pull of the Stars

Gate Theatre, Dublin

Emma Donoghue, author of Room and Haven, here adapts her eponymous 2020 novel – a shockingly well-timed yarn about the 1918 flu pandemic – into a busy chamber piece swollen with righteous anger. The production is valiantly acted. It packs an encyclopedia of detail within a cramped time frame. Little new ground may be broken theatrically, but few will emerge unmoved or uninterested.

We are in a smallish room, given over to pregnant women, atop a Dublin hospital in the apparent command of the real-life trailblazing rebel Dr Kathleen Lynn. Played with rigid Church of Ireland spine by Maeve Fitzgerald, the no-nonsense physician is forced to delegate responsibility wherever she can. We know Mrs Garrett (India Mullen) is middle class because she wears a pink frilly thing and looks down on the blissfully naive Mrs Tierney (Ciara Byrne).

The play begins as a generous ensemble piece. Bickering. Worrying. Sweating. But, as events progress, focus swings to the striving nurse Julia Power (Sarah Morris) and a sharp-witted newcomer. When Mrs Noonan is wheeled over from the mother-and-baby home across the street – a barely recognisable Úna Kavanagh bristles with rubicund agony as the poor woman – she comes accompanied by the funny, uninformed, good-natured inmate Bridie (Ghaliah Conroy). Impressed by the girl’s spirit, Julia allows her to take on some nursing duties, and they develop a touching closeness.

The play sometimes wears its learning heavily. Dr Lynn drops facts about contemporaneous social conditions in a manner better suited to a public lecture, telling us, for example, that a motherless baby has “as much chance of surviving her first year as a man in the trenches”. Bridie spills out the all-too-familiar horrors about the home a little too readily and comprehensively. Debates about the recent violence are a tad on the nose. “Five hundred died in your ‘Rising’!” the posh Mrs Garrett yells at the posher “Sinn Féiner” Dr Lynn.


None of this, however, much slows down a play with the grip of an old-school hospital melodrama. Its director, Louise Lowe, draws out sharp performances that establish character with rapidity. Alyson Cummins’s cunning set design, making use of a shattered urban backdrop that reminds us of the Easter Rising and of huger conflicts on the Continent, shifts mobile units to conjure up fetid, crowded space. The scenes involving childbirth are not wholly successful, neither satisfactorily naturalistic nor sufficiently stylised, but the actors still get across a wealth of agony.

The Pull of the Stars is, however, most memorable for the developing relationship between Julia and Bridie. Donoghue does not have much space for manoeuvre here – it’s a shortish play with a lot else going on – but she exploits it economically as traumatised by mortality, the two find a modicum of solace beneath the night sky. Morris gives us a woman slowly grasping the breadth of her potential. Conroy, fizzing with zest and positivity, hints at a character born decades before her time. The moments of sentimentality are forgivable in a piece that elsewhere surges with such unapologetic sincerity and informed compassion.

The Pull of the Stars is at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, until Sunday, May 12th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist