Katie O’Kelly’s Counter Culture
4 stars ****
Just Festival at St. John’s (Venue 127)
IN A DEPARTMENT store in Dublin’s O’Connell Street, Christmas is coming; but not for the shopworkers, who – in 21st century post-crash Ireland – find themselves steadily losing the employment rights their parents and grandparents fought for, and won. Bridie, enjoying her last day at work before retirement, can remember some of those struggles; her granddaughter Gemma, eight months pregnant and still at work in soft furnishings, belongs to a generation so desperate for work that they barely stop to read the details, before signing up to the ruthless new zero-hours contracts the management has prepared for them.
It comes with a strong political pedigree, this light-touch and beautifully-written solo show by Fringe newcomer Katie O’Kelly; her father, who also directs Counter Culture, is the campaigning Fringe First winner Donal O’Kelly, appearing this year in Little Thing Big Thing at Assembly George Square.
Yet despite its slightly sentimental upbeat conclusion, with the workers all marching out to demonstrate under the statue of the great Irish labour leader James Larkin, there’s plenty of charm, subtlety and poetry in O’Kelly’s story, as she gently locates her characters in the bigger landscape of the city, and links them to Ireland’s radical past. Undeterred by the deafening roar of eveing fireworks from the Castle, O’ Kelly uses just a few simple props to create a life-affirming and hugely promising hour of theatre; and to conjure up a cast of at least a dozen characters, from the monosyllabic owner of the shop, through his hard-faced manager Simon, to Gemma herself and her new baby – born on the furniture department’s top luxury display bed, as if to herald a whole new age of radical defiance, and of decent human priorities, reasserted at last.