An unsentimental look at a Dublin that will not accommodate its own

Shelter review: History repeats itself in Cristin Kehoe’s admirably understated drama set in modern Dublin



Mick Lally Theatre, Galway

“I’m wondering…. Is this history repeating itself?” asks Fus – or “Fussy” to his friends – from the window of a disused Dublin flourmills high above Grand Canal Dock. “Another hero of Ireland?”

That Fus’s great-grandfather fought in the Rising, sniping three British soldiers from this very spot (or so he tells us), seems to invite the question. But it is radically undercut by his circumstances, squatting in an abandoned building, from which a tabloid newspaper has photographed him performing a dangerous high-dive.

In Aaron Monaghan’s riveting performance, moreover, Fussy may have the physique of a Greek sculpture but the alarmingly intense stare and wildly oscillating self-belief of a seasoned day-drinker, numbing his problems. History may be repeating itself in Cristin Kehoe’s engaging new play for Druid: first as tragedy, now as tragicomedy.  

It’s not hard to see a deserving inheritance from Sean O’Casey in Kehoe’s depiction of life on the fringes of Dublin, given fluid and unsentimental detail. Here are the otherwise witnessed struggles of a community against another era of disorienting change. Fus’s friend Tommy arrives first, in another excellent character study from Rory Nolan, as the security guard who allowed him inside and will now lose his job because of the stunt.

They’re joined by Bren (Brendan Conroy) an older man prone to mental disarray; Polish Tom (Mark Huberman), an earnest immigrant down on his luck, and finally Fus’s heavily pregnant partner Majella, a force as indomitable as she is petite. As a term of endearment, Fus calls her Jelly, but Lauren Larkin’s terrific performance suggests someone whom life has made much harder set. In a small performance space, with challenging sightlines, director Oonagh Murphy works well to ensure a natural motion for Kehoe’s mostly admirably understated writing.

Rebecca Guinnane’s character Angela may not quite ring as true, at once implausibly fearless and instinctively timid, but she is there to represent the polite indifference of industry. The locks are to be changed, the building developed into commercial offices, she explains. “It’s a regeneration process,” she tells them. But not for them.

There is some fine detail in the script. A tender relationship turns violent under torment; the camaraderie of a group of men pivots into real intimidation when a lone woman arrives; Bren, recently assaulted in the streets, is kept interminably on hold awaiting emergency accommodation; and Majella seizes the promise of a hotel room for herself and her newborn. That is all tragic and real enough without a later grand gesture, as though the play feared that ambiguity over the fate of its characters was not affecting enough.

The more discreet ironies of the show are actually more haunting – one running joke in which characters constantly confuse each other’s origins makes their beginnings seem no clearer than their future. But there’s nothing with as much resounding sadness as Fus’s profound identification with his city – “I’ve Dublin in my veins,” he says – and the play’s sure understanding that it will make no accommodation for him.

  • Until July 29th