What drives a competitive dancer? The competition, the desire to win? Or the dance, the desire to express? Margaret McAuliffe's warm one-woman show about a headstrong young Irish dancer named Annie looks at both. Produced by Irish company Fishamble, it's a small story – just one girl's move from stroppy teenage determination to bag a place on the podium to a certain distanced scepticism about the whole rigmarole of competition. But it's delivered with fired-up assurance by McAuliffe, who also has some cracking moves – she was an Irish dancer herself for 18 years.
McAuliffe plays every character within her story, flitting seamlessly between them and finding plausible, persuasive definition. Here's Annie, all teenage whine and stomp; bright-eyed and chin lifted at the thought of winning, inconsolable and turned-in at losing. But, under Stefanie Preissner's assured direction, McAuliffe's equally good when switching to playing Annie's long-suffering mother – who naturally fails to understand all the ins and outs of her daughter's obsession, but who always thinks she did grand – as well as a funny, ferociously demanding tutor, whose inspirational determination eventually comes to seem more like bitterness.
And in staging the competitions, we really go through it with her, McAuliffe somehow building stadium-sized tension in a small hall by herself. We hold our breaths for the results just as Annie does. McAuliffe also nicely charts how pent-up frustration – wanting something too much – can get in the way of a good performance, of being a winner, as well as the cattiness and politics that come with any public contest. It's astute too on the way that, as teenagers, something can be life-or-death one year then slip away the next, hardly mattering anymore.
The scope of this coming-of-age story is narrow – I can't say I had any interest in competitive Irish dancing before watching, to be quite honest – but it's charmingly delivered. For a lot of it, I longed for McAuliffe to dance more: we get tempting glimpses or explainers of different set routines (‘the Humours of Bandon' being one) and you can tell she has the capability to let rip. Of course, this restraint proves intentional, and a final number proves very much worth the wait, dance becoming an explosion of defiant creativity rather than a way to prove you're the best by best following the rules. It makes for a joyful conclusion.
The Humours of Bandon runs at Dance Base until 27 August.