Baglady by Frank McGuinness tries to provoke if not sympathy for someone at the fringe of society, at least an awareness of how they might have come to be in such a position. Faced with an audience inured to tales of atrocities on the daily news, McGuinness relies on technique as much as content to generate an emotional response – Baglady is very much about how the story is told.
Sitting on the edge of a river Baglady (Joan Kempson) describes her wanders around the city. Dressed in the clothes of the father she venerates she tells of her family life and, as images of water and themes such as cleanliness re-occur, the story of how she came to be in her reduced circumstances emerges from her shattered mind.
The story is not told in a linear fashion but creeps out in fragments. This technique maintains interest but as the story is pieced together, it is hard not to mentally tick the parts off a checklist: incestuous relationship, stillborn child, and indifferent church figures covering up abuse. Sadly, the story of Baglady is now so familiar that it feels as well worn as the clothes the character wears. The emotion generated is not so much anger at the waste of a life or sympathy for a victim of abuse but rather the familiar feeling of being helpless to effectively intervene.
Kempson gives Baglady a suitably contradictory personality; contrasting from aggressively defending the honour of her father to a bewildered sense that something has gone wrong. She struggles to articulate her horrified fascination with water that both draws and repels her. With McGuinness’s lyrical script as a guide Joan shows the fine mind that has been wasted. This gifted actress' interpretation is the most convincing element of the play – a real person that you are likely to encounter – and try to avoid- every day.
There are a number of questionable decisions made here though which jar. Granted, the play is presented as part of Manchester’s Irish Festival but the use of jolly jigs played prior to the show sets an inappropriate mood. Kempson spends most of the 45 minutes of the play seated or squatting/lying on the ground and so is irritatingly obscured from anyone not seated in the front row.
That Baglady is only a partial success is due less to the efforts of those involved in this production and more to the fact that the audience is only too familiar with its content to have the desired response.