Ade Morris's play is based on a short story by Bryan Gallagher, spun into a tale of love and loss as poignant as the haunting strains of the eponymous aria that underscore it.
'Mad' Madelyn Ingram is an Ulster beauty destined for a lonely old age, despite the suitors she sings of in her youth. Her story begins at the end, on the morn of her funeral, as two mourners meet in her cottage to pay their respects to the deceased. Daniel was the old lady's protégé, grateful for the encouragement she gave him 20 years before to follow his dreams to London. His fellow mourner is more reluctant to reveal what brings him to Madelyn's wake.
Delicately, the story begins to unravel and Madelyn materialises in Daniel's reminiscences. As the lively eccentric old lady he remembers so fondly, Ann Marcuson is extraordinarily convincing. A talented singer, she even manages to deliver the title song in a voice apparently quavering with age, puckering her face as if both teeth and gums have receded.
It's one of the strengths of both the writing and the collective performances that old Madelyn comes across as such a strong, intriguing - and likeable - character, before the sad secrets of her youth as revealed. So the moment where the 'aged' Marcuson lets down her hair and reveals her girlish figure is almost more effective because it's so eagerly anticipated.
The tale of thwarted love that then unfolds reveals a tragedy of missed opportunity and misplaced trust. And, as this is Northern Ireland, the Troubles also play their part in the sorrows of the Catholic Madelyn, whose possessive brother Liam opposes her match with George, the local Protestant policeman.
As in his writing, Morris directs with subtlety and, in his hands, his tightly-knit cast skilfully intertwine past and present, darting back and forth across the 50-odd years of his narrative. Matching her performance as old Mad, Marcuson enchants as the fiery young beauty while Shaun Hennessy is touching in his solid honesty as George, the bobby on a bicycle, and Matthew Morrison impresses in the contrasting roles of gentle Daniel and violently unpredictable Liam.
I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls manages well to mix some bittersweet laughter in with the tears, but you'll need to take along some tissues all the same - this is a surefire, and sure-handed, weepie.
- Judi Herman (reviewed at London's Tricycle Theatre)