Nostalgia is a growth industry in these tough times


Theatrical productions centred on women characters of the past have been selling out countrywide, writes ANN MARIE HOURIHANE

WHOEVER SAID the past is another country had not been to the theatre in Ireland recently.

Big Maggie, Little Women, indeed The Country Girlsthemselves have never been so popular. In tough times, nostalgia is a growth industry. “Loyalty, passion and love” as the radio advertisement for Little Womensays. It was once thought the future was female; the past is now the same.

Little Womenis the story of four 19th century American girls. In real life the Alcott girls’ father was a Christian radical who beggared the family by his involvement with a social utopia – but what the hell, we’ve always loved it. Little Womenis part of the general female past, and the females are the ones who buy the theatre tickets. Since it opened a fortnight ago, the Gate theatre has had to lay on extra shows of Little Women, with the matinees, which start this Wednesday, proving particularly popular.

Women are tearing themselves away from Corrie – from The Killing, for God’s sake – and arriving at the theatre in groups, making Little Womena girls’ night out.

The show, which is due to run until mid-January, comprises the Gate’s Christmas season. This does tend, understandably, to the Dickensian, God-bless-us-everyone Christmas style of production.

Big Maggieis not like that.

It is a strange nation that finds comfort in looking at the triumph of a monster like Maggie Polpin, but a thrill of recognition united the capacity audience at the Gaiety last Wednesday. Here in Maggie we found all the country Irish grannies and all the Munster women we have ever known. There’s no monster like your own monster; the audience was on board from the start, gasping and sighing and even whooping.

It was highly enjoyable evening, and a funny play. In Dublin there is a phrase that indicates total relaxation and ease – “You’re at your granny’s” – and the audiences attending Big Maggie, which is on tour and opens in Ennis tonight, are indeed at their respective grannies. Big Maggieherself is played here by a Kerrywoman. According to the Druid press people, Aisling O’Sullivan is from Milltown and a little village called Poulawaddra, just outside Tralee. The perfection and confidence of her accent fits author John B Keane’s script so perfectly that, in a strange way, you can hear his voice when she speaks.

The other advantage she brings to the role is her youth. Although some of us found it a little jarring to be looking at a Big Maggie who is 41, and damn sexy, it added to the danger of the evening.

For those of us who had never seen Big Maggiebefore, it does seem an extraordinary amount of it is about sex, and specifically how sex can, and has been, exchanged for the ownership of a shop and a farm.

In a piece of genius casting, former Boyzone member Keith Duffy appears as the handsome salesman, Teddy Heelin. Duffy does handsome very well, particularly in a nice suit. He must surely attract a female audience, although on Wednesday the audience seemed to be composed largely of heterosexual couples in their 50s and 60s. Whatever they were looking for they seemed to find it. As the amateur dramatics raged in Brussels, it was as if the play took us back to the beginning of some long, and chiefly financial, cycle. It is firmly set in 1969, and Maggie’s new rival is the supermarket.

The Galway run of Big Maggie, at the Town Hall Theatre, sold out. So have the Roscommon, Ennis, Longford and Tralee runs, all of which take to the stage within the coming month. The production returns to Dublin in February.

For all the show’s popularity, Maggie is a savage matriarch, in fact a real sadist. Her justification for the way she treats her children is that she is toughening them up for the cruelty of the world, but no one really believes this: she seems to be some type of psychopath, with a fine line in repartee. The play veers wildly between Ibsen one minute and she’s-behind-you pantomime the next. It is a miracle that Aisling O’Sullivan manages to maintain command of this strange hybrid, but she does.

This, and Red Kettle’s production of The Country Girls, which I did not see, come from a hard place in Irish history. The 1950s and 60s were a time of repression, emigration and terrible poverty.

People like Maggie fought for survival, and took no prisoners. The Country Girlslonged to escape from their unloving homeland with Mr Gentleman. How bleak it all was, when we look at it on one of our nights off from Corrie and The Killing.

And yet we cannot look at it enough, it seems. Edna O’Brien and John B Keane were once controversial, and are now points of universal agreement. They bring us back to the days when we knew what we were fighting. Total confidence reigned in the Gaiety last Wednesday, over the actors and audience. And these days you can only get confidence in the warm gloom of the theatre and the unalterable events of our imagined past.