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Review: The Approach (Assembly Hall, Edinburgh Fringe)

Landmark's production of Mark O'Rowe's play is an exquisite demonstration of female friendships

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The Approach
(© Mark O'Rowe)

Mark O'Rowe's new play for Ireland's Landmark Productions is a slowly bubbling big-hitter. It creeps up on you, weaving its tale masterfully and meticulously until you are entirely absorbed. It's thrilling, soothing and poignant in equal measure.

On paper, it doesn't sound that fun. Three women take turns to chat round a table together on an otherwise bare stage. It's five meetings between friends. They used to be a trio of chums, but after a bust-up between the two sisters, they all barely see each other – and never together. The play starts mid-sentence as Cora and Anna meet after not seeing each other for a long while. Their conversation seems, on the face of it, very quotidian – there are questions over jobs, lovers, situations, pets. "I like your bracelet", says Cora and they admire it for a couple of beats.

This set up is repeated, with Cora then meeting Denise, then Anna again. We don't immediately know how long the gaps inbetween their meetings are, but we eventually find out. Everything is slowly revealed though little mentions. It's like a spider diagram of a play, where you sit watching and mapping out the hours, years, days and intentions behind what you hear onstage.

There's been trauma between the two sisters, who fell out over a man, now dead, and Cora is pushing them for a reconciliation. The women talk about what life was like when they were a trio, that time they spent living all together. It's like watching the entire life of a friendship (or friendships).

O'Rowe's language is cyclical and sparse, and nothing if not realistic. The way the dialogue crosses over, fast, but clear, is artfully managed. The rhythm and pausing in the chit-chat recalls a beautiful clarity of truth of how humans connect. But by seeing these meetings from afar, yet back to back, we are also drawn to notice patterns. There's subtle power play at work, ways in which the women impress each other, lie, change their stories according to who is telling them. It could be the unreliability of memory, but there's a niggling sense that there's something slightly more sinister at work.

O'Rowe keeps us guessing and the performances are transfixing. Cathy Belton as Cora has a compelling stillness which subtly suggests a sadness. Aisling O'Sullivan is more forceful and pushy, she's quick to anger and sorrow. Derbhle Crotty's Denise is confident too and there's a sense that she's calculating. They are all superb performers, giving virtuosic turns that are so enjoyable to watch.

The dynamics of friendship, of people, are excellently portrayed in The Approach, but what's so impressive is the way the play holds things back. It demonstrates that feeling that you can never quite know the truth of a person. A clever, unsettling play that echoes long after it's finished.

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