Heaven at Edinburgh Festival Fringe – review

Eugene O’Brien’s two-hander is running at the Traverse Theatre

Actors Andrew Bennett & Janet Moran in a scene from Heaven by Eugene O'Brien
Andrew Bennett and Janet Moran in Heaven, © Raymond Davies

The dialogue that is really two monologues is a form that Irish theatre seems to have made its own. In Eugene O’Brien’s new play for Fishamble, memories and events uncoil and overlap as fifty-something married couple Mairead and Mal return to Mairead’s hometown in the Irish midlands for her sister’s weekend wedding.

We first meet Mairead, played with spirited warmth by Janet Moran, when she’s nursing a hangover on the wedding morning. The events of the previous evening have fuelled a sense of longing for what might have been; an encounter with her old flame Breffni has stirred all kinds of passions that her life with Mal (Andrew Bennett) has failed to deliver.

In her telling, he’s a comfortable old shoe, “like a limp, lifeless Kofi Annan”, always attempting to bring peace and harmony to their lives, trying to patch up her all but broken relationship with their grown-up daughter. But when Mal himself appears and tells the audience of his own behaviour over the past evening, when his wife imagined him safely tucked up in their B&B, a different picture emerges.

Bennett plays him as all surface emollience and reticence, yet writhing with agony and doubt underneath, as he describes his altar boy sexual fantasies for the half-naked Christ on the cross. He, like Mairead is all but consumed with a sense that in settling for a life without conflict and with affection but not true love, he has wasted 20 years.

As the wedding and then the reception proceed, both characters emerge to describe the turn events are taking, and with it, the people they are surrounded by and the sense of mad release that begins to take over as drugs and alcohol do their work. It’s wonderfully written, with a vivid sense of unfolding life, and images that conjure perfectly both what is going on and the feelings that are unleashed.

Jim Culleton directs a sensitive production that is pacy and poised, allowing both the reminiscence and the descriptions space to blossom and breathe, and the two finely judged performances room to paint their characters in many shades. You might predict where the ending is heading, but it still lands beautifully in this chamber piece of big emotions, suffused with a sense of misunderstanding and loss.