When ambitious James Whelan (Mark Hesketh) moves to faraway Dublin to take up a job that will greatly enhance his prospects, his pretty sweetheart Nan (Aislish Symons) must decide whether he is worth waiting for. Unsure of what she truly wants, and not short of other suitors, Nan rebels against James’s plans for their future and refuses to commit herself.
When we next come across the young people, several years have passed. James’s drive and hard work have paid off and he is now a successful entrepreneur, but Nan’s choices have not stood her in such good stead and the pair now meet on very different terms.
Teresa Deevy’s play, written in 1937 but enjoying its UK premiere now, bowls along at an engaging pace, but is let down in places by Gavin McAlinden’s safe and static directing style. This isn’t helped any by Katie Lias’s unimaginative design, which does very little to summon the atmosphere of 1930s small town Ireland.
Hesketh doesn’t achieve the tortured intensity necessary to justify James’s prideful, contradictory outbursts, but nuanced supporting performances from Siobhán McSweeney and Conor Short provide real insight into the pernicious effects of pride and ambition on old friendships.
Deevy wrote six plays for the Abbey Theatre, Dublin in the 1930s before submitting Wife to James Whelan to the theatre’s conservative new management in 1937. It was rejected and Deevy made to understand that her status as a married woman effectively prevented any future plays of hers being produced there. This rather old-fashioned and occasionally heavy-handed production doesn’t allow Deevy’s writing to shine in the way that it might, but it’s a worthy monument to a talented writer who was sadly side-lined by the politics of the day.