JOYCE MCMILLAN on DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, BABY BABY at Menzieshill Community Centre, Dundee, and JUICY FRUITS at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts 20.10.11
Days Of Wine And Roses 4 stars ****
Baby Baby 4 stars ****
Juicy Fruits 3 stars ***
THE TRAIN BACK from Glasgow to Edinburgh, after the first night at the Tron, is not a pretty sight. There’s been a big football match; and although most of the fans are fine, others are so drunk that they scarcely know where they are, staggering around the train accosting strangers, or collapsing in foul-smelling heaps.
Asked about it tomorrow or the day after, though, they will probably say they had a “great night out”; and it’s this extraordinary tolerance and celebration of alcohol, in our culture, that the Northern Irish writer Owen McCafferty seeks to highlight, in his 2005 stage version of Days Of Wine And Roses, the acclaimed 1958 television play by J.P. Miller. Now revived in a co-production by the Tron and Theatre Jezebel, McCafferty’s version is ruthless in exploring the special relationship between so-called “Celtic” cultures and alcohol; he reworks the story of the play, set in London in the 1960’s, so that the young couple in this two-handed drama are incomers from Belfast, liberated from the strict social norms of their hometown into the social atmosphere of the early swinging Sixties.
So Donal and Mona meet at Belfast airport on their way to the big city; and once there, they fall in love, marry, have a child, while Donal pursues an increasingly successful career as right-hand-man to a wealthy bookmaker. The job, though, entails unlimited boozy socialising; and by the time baby Kieran is a few months old, both of his parents are hopeless alcoholics. Under threat of losing his job, Donal begins to clean up his act, with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous. But Mona is furious and desperate at what she sees as Donal’s rejection of a love built on drink-fuelled fun; and as the marriage fails, her life slides onto what looks like a hopeless downward path.
McCafferty’s two-hour dramatisation of this story, in a dozen scenes set between 1962 and 1970, is hardly a perfect piece of work; towards the end, it develops a dragging, de-energising tendency to keep repeating and elaborating in words – fine, poetic, unnecessary – what has already been demonstrated in the action.
In Kenny Miller’s production, though – lifted by his own glinting, glass-and-steel modern design – Donal and Mona are played by Keith Fleming and Sally Reid with such passion, skill, and depth of feeling that the play is often shattering in its emotional impact. And in the end, this feels like a play that everyone should see; if only because it looks back to that crucial moment, barely two generations ago, when our society’s old defences against the “demon drink” finally crumbled under the pressure of modernity, leaving us vulnerable to the impact of the most charming and insidious drug of all.
One of the underlying themes of Days Of Wine And Roses involves the divergent impact of parenthood on Donal and Mona; and it’s perhaps significant that two of this week’s other major shows also explore the complexity of the experience of parenthood, and the tensions it can generate. At community centres around Dundee, the Rep company are reviving their 2008 show Baby Baby, a brief, beautiful 75-minute double monologue, adapted by Vivien French from her own book of the same title, about how two very different teenage girls – a young Goth called Pinky, and pretty, conventional April – cope with the experience of becoming mothers at fifteen.
In this revival, the play seems a shade too strongly focussed on the highly-charged relationship between the two girls, and particularly on April’s obsession with Pinky as a kind of magical free spirit. In its second half, though – as the two babies are born, and April and Pinky start to experience the dangers, the terror and the unexpected joys of real-life motherhood – the show’s sheer emotional directness and compassion becomes irresistible. Jemima Levick’s production draws a particularly heart-stopping performance from Kirsty McKay as April, an unhappy, timid girl surprised into joy by her overwhelming love for her son; and it’s small wonder that many of the women in the audience at Menzieshill were moved to tears, by a play that finally transcends all the cliches of anti-teen-pregnancy propaganda, to achieve something far more complex, and more true.
In Leo Butler’s Juicy Fruits – the lunchtime play at Oran Mor this week, and the Traverse next – the ambivalent experience of motherhood is made flesh, in the cafe conversation between ex-university friends Nina and Lorna that forms the first two-thirds of the play. Lorna is a young mum, happily married to a well-to-do barrister, but struggling with the demands of suburban motherhood, as she cares for a bruising eight-month-old son who rejected her breast-milk from the start. Nina, by contrast, is just back from an extended adventure in the jungles of Borneo, trying to protect a threatened species of orang-utan; but it soon becomes apparent that Nina’s story is far more complex than she admits, and that she is on the verge of complete psychological breakdown.
Juicy Fruits is an ambitious play that struggles to work out its own complex themes in just 55 minutes, and finally soars into an almost surreal meditation on the relationship between western humanity and the planet we have ravaged. For much of its length, though, the play comes across as an extended post-graduate joke about the kind of old university “friends” who haven’t seen each other for years, despise each other’s recent life-choices, and in fact hate each other’s guts. And despite superb performances from Clare Waugh as Lorna and Denise Hoey as Nina, the play’s emotional impact is finally muted by uncertainty about whether it truly wants to explore the tragedy of its characters’ lives; or simply prefers to send them up, as fundamentally ridiculous.
Days Of Wine And Roses at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until 29 October. Baby Baby at the Kirkton Community Centre tonight, Finmill Centre tomorrow, and the Adler Complex, Dundee, on Saturday. Juicy Fruits at Oran Mor, Glasgow until Saturday, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, next week.