Sh*t: This hard-hitting play is profane but not profound

Review: The play’s vulgarity becomes less logical during some unsettling scenes


Project Arts Centre - Space Upstairs, Dublin

What on Earth is someone supposed to do with this line: “You f***ed-up nothing, f***ing nothing you are, a big f***ing nothing, he goes, the biggest f***ing nothing, the biggest f***ing nothing I know”?

This stream of expletives, heard early on in Patricia Cornelius’s play Sh*t, belongs to a woman who has been spun through a life of rejection. The only imaginable delivery available to actor Kate Stanley Brennan is to lean into a heavy amusement at the man giving her abuse. In other words, to play it as ribaldry: “Who’s this f***ing f***ed-up f**k telling me I’m f***ed”.

In this hard-hitting play, directed by Jennifer Jennings for Thisispopbaby, everyone is damaged. Three women are thrown together into an underground place – Emmett Scanlon’s set, simultaneously evoking a prison cell and the vaults of a skyscraper city, is made ghostly by Sarah Jane Shiels’s lighting, as memories of the past begin to seep in. The pain of being buffeted between different foster care homes is shown in grim depictions, such as the sight of Brennan, Nicky Lewis and Aisling O’Mara, as individuals starved of caring guardians, deciding to invent a fictional mother to love them.


Angered at false pretences of belonging somewhere new, of being fenced off and finding themselves second-favourite to other siblings, the women’s bruising stories are presented with obscene humour. There is power in cursing, they realise. (“You’ll wear it out,” O’Mara’s Bobby even warns, when someone uses a swear word to excess). In the disturbance of wholesome polite society, by individuals who survived their own toxic upbringings, it seems that profanity can be an effective vehicle for irony.

Yet, it’s something of a truism in comedy that bad comics rely on foul language as a crutch. The play’s vulgarity becomes less logical when unsettling scenes, such as the women exchanging tips on how to fend off predators, treat their morbidity as farce. If ribaldry is about arousing fears of personal inadequacy, there is an unsatisfying dissonance in seeing it used to paint a sympathetic portrayal of victimhood, especially one trying to face down a startlingly unjust society. It’s as if the wires of blue comedy and black comedy are getting crossed.

With hints that the women are being detained for provoking an attack, the plot pieces together past events, while interceding scenes that allow them to thrash against life get pulled into the hardcore rave of Jenny O’Malley’s sound design. Different power struggles occasionally surface: “It’s like you’re still a kid,” says Bobby, as Lewis’s Sam holds out for ambitions to have a loving family and a happy life.

While each wages private battles with their bodies and feelings of deserved affection, they are as familiar as family. That could make their split-up in prison yet another painful separation, but Cornelius’s comic approach feels too extreme to map seriously. It’s profane but not profound.

Until March 5th