Greta Garbo really did visit Donegal, in 1970, as the guest of an English painter, but Frank McGuinness fictionalises the occasion backwards to the summer of 1967, with Ireland on the brink of the recent Troubles and Scott Mackenzie singing of trips to San Francisco with flowers in your hair.
It’s a good set-up that could have backfired but doesn’t thanks to the witty discretion in how McGuinness presents the catalytic arrival of the reclusive star in the Donegal backwater, and the raw passion with which he writes the ensuing domestic crisis; I haven’t admired a play of his so much since Dolly West’s Kitchen ten years ago.
The crumbling house, with a history of contested ownership, is set in a field of bullrushes with a sense of life passing the womenfolk by - there’s more than a nod towards Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, and not just in the nearly-on-the-table dancing; it belongs to an English artist, Matthew Dover (Daniel Gerroll), Garbo’s host, but not the real-life one, Derek Hill.
And here’s where McGuinness really diverges from Friel: Matthew’s boyfriend, a Cockney hunk called Harry (Tom McKay), strolls into the kitchen stark bollock naked; and Garbo embarks on a discreet Sapphic friendship with Michelle Fairley’s beautifully expressed, worn down housekeeper Paulie. Paulie’s niece, Colette (Lisa Diveney), suspended between drudgery and escape, is hoping to study medicine in Dublin. But her parents - Owen McDonnell’s sullen, drunken chauffeur James and Angeline Ball’s blithely coarse and hilarious Derry girl Sylvia - close ranks against her aspiration.
The second act contains some of the most viciously accurate writing of the one-time Catholic mentality on education I’ve seen, while the first is an often delightful bantering between Garbo and the others, mostly Sylvia, on cultural differences and The Sound of Music. (Sylvia reminds Garbo of “Yoolie” Andrews.)
The play is slightly over-long and there is one too many false endings, but Nicolas Kent’s production, lovingly designed by Robert Jones with a diagonal gauze (lit by Matthew Eagland) that can suddenly fill the blue sky with a forest of birches, is well organised and intensely enjoyable.
Caroline Lagerfelt is a perfect Garbo, high cheek-boned, funny, not remotely caricatured or ridiculous. She finds similarities in the landscape with her native Stockholm, and the play proves a two-way ticket to understanding in a surprising and skilful manner, with Colette’s future resting in Matthew’s painting of the screeching peacock in the fields.