Review: The Waste Ground Party

As an inner-city community seethes, there is still cause for celebration in Shaun Dunne’s new play, which combines social realism and mystery

Peacock Theatre, Dublin

***

This neighbourhood has gone to the dogs; everybody says it. Bin bags amass on fluorescent-lit street corners, attracting birds and rats. Young men drift between daytime idleness and late-night bar fights. The residents, peeping out of windows, seethe with mutual suspicion. Who is to blame?

Shaun Dunne’s Abbey debut, a short and clear-eyed piece, may layer on images of social disadvantage, but it also depicts a community in more subtle deterioration, worn down from both within and without. The contradiction in the title says it all, finding hope in a loveless place, and Niamh Lunny’s sparse, urban set seeks its own correspondence, merging exterior and interior spaces that make it hard to distinguish between a street corner and a home.

That precise threat is heaviest on Bernie’s mind, sharply played by Ger Ryan. An “inner-city Sherlock”, as her son Gary (Alan Mahon) dubs her, she is keen to discover the rubbish dumpers but has already settled on a culprit: her neighbour Tina (Jasmine Russell). She is the mother of Martin (Lloyd Cooney), Gary’s best friend on the estate, who is roundly considered a hot-tempered waster, but who would literally give you the shirt off his back.

There are simple dilemmas in Dunne’s play: Gary is considering dropping out of college; Martin is trying to set up a kid’s soccer league (ostensibly to “give back” to the community, but mainly to prove himself less feckless in his mother’s eyes); and Louise Lewis’s worried young mother Denise is struggling to get by. Fundamentally, though, this is a conflict between optimism and pessimism. How long before the new playground is vandalised, wonders Bernie? Why can’t a positive idea yield sustaining benefits, asks the guileless Martin?

Dunne’s play is hardly cynical, but it knows the cost of everything: bin tags, corporation fines, the price of a pint. Such important detail gives director Gerard Stembridge’s production the tang of social realism, and yet it seems more pointed during unreal moments. Bin bags really drop from the sky, like a baffling mystery, rain falls in a slick sheet, and when the Corporation finally manifests itself as a silent, inscrutable figure, the play nudges towards a Kafkaesque satire about society, accountability and absence.

Dunne is less attracted to abstraction, however. The mystery of the bags is explained for maximum pathos, but there is something more tragic in Martin, a good guy whose reputation is rubbished, and the production is strongest in Cooney and Mahon's delicately performed exchanges. Those conversations are guided by the struggle between self-respect and humiliation, and the sundering of their friendship stands for the frayed bonds of community. Dunne has admirably more tact than to spell out a message, but the play is instructive nonetheless. If vermin are threatening our environment, gnawing at our pride, the worst thing we can do is feed them. Until Nov 22

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about theatre, television and other aspects of culture

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