The Small Things: Blood and violence and love, but no chemistry

Review: Pauline McLynn and Peter Gowan work from an extraordinary script by Enda Walsh, but the setting leaves things out in the cold

The Small Things ★★
Old Cork Waterworks, Cork

There's a moment in Corcadorca's production of The Small Things when everything comes together. Pauline McLynn and Peter Gowan are facing off on a pair of small separate stages, unfolding an increasingly dark tale. It is outdoors, at the Old Cork Waterworks. Night has fallen and, with it, Paul Keoghan's lighting has come into its own. Mel Mercier's soundscape is in harmony with the rushing noise of the nearby river, and the audience, wrapped up against the night's cold, has the air of survivors: we are the huddled remnants of humanity, traumatised survivors of an apocalypse. It all feels highly satisfying.

The trouble is, like the title of Enda Walsh’s 2005 play, this moment really is a small thing. There’s a richness in Walsh’s dialogue, which, as is typical of his work, has the characters returning to past events, trying to make sense of them through a repetition that also holds them trapped. In this case, the story is of a village taken over by the sinister chip shop owner and his henchman, who compel the occupants to silence and pointless routine by very bloody means.

But Gowan takes his lines at a gallop, rushing through with the speed of the Lee over the weir below, and losing the richness, pathos and the lovely, brutal darkness that Walsh's words hint at, as he goes. McLynn does much better, and while it's hard to shake Mrs Doyle as she fusses over her knick-knacks, she rises above any sense of typecasting as she self-questions her own routines and stories.

As a two-hander, however, the play needs a better match. Alongside the blood and violence in the narrative, it’s a love story too, but there’s no chemistry here. Corcadorca made their name with site responsive theatre but, apart from being up on a hill, reflecting Walsh’s setting of the play in which two houses are perched on a mountain top, separated by a valley (the impossibility of connection: you get the metaphor), the only function of the Waterworks site within the play seems to be to freeze the audience into acceptance, and to make the actors have to shout.

Keoghan’s set represents the separation of the pair, but the space in between is festooned with the necessary waterproof wraps required of an Irish summer, and feels more like a dire warning against plastic pollution than an impossible divide. After a while, I began to imagine the same play staged in a theatre: the things you could do with sound and lighting, the oppressive atmosphere you could build, making Walsh’s comedic releases all the more powerful. The script is extraordinary, in its words, but also in its implied silences, and you’re simply not getting enough of them here.

Runs until Saturday, June 29th

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