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The Gift

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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There is a neat theatrical device at the heart of this world premiere by Eamon McDonnell – two neighbouring Irish farmers, Ned (Christopher Prior) and Callum (Phil Philmar), are haunted by the spirits of women in their past, neither of whom will let their men rest. At times one wonders whether it is the women or the men who are most alive, and that is presumably exactly how the writer wants it, for we are very much in the realms of lyrical Irish whimsy – there are various allusions to pixies and the spirits of the forest - but the whimsy comes with a dark undercurrent.

The opening scene between the grizzled Ned and his delicate young wife Brid (Georgina Bryce) is beautifully handled, and the twist, when it comes, is conveyed with satisfying subtlety. Would that the rest of the play were so economical. Sadly, the structure is so jumbled, and the precise nature of Callum's guilt so elusive for so long that it is hard to make dramatic sense of the characters’ motivations.

Callum could be taken for the embodiment of death itself, with his skeletal appearance and hunched, brooding demeanour, while Ned is the precise opposite with his chatty, jocular humanity and rotund figure. The men take some respite from their lonely lives in each other’s company, with a simple game of twenty-one leading to a very successful day out at the races, but the expected confrontation between them, when their past actions are revealed, fails to materialise; all conflict is confined to their respective relationships with the dead women (strongly played by Bryce and Victoria Johnston), and this undermines both the potency and the poignancy of the play’s ending.

The gift of the title is a boxed pair of engraved whisky tumblers, the men’s evenings together having been helped along with Ned’s whisky served in jam jars. Ned puts the gift away for best and the tumblers are never used. There appears to be more symbolism lurking hereabouts, but it hangs in the air like an autumn mist and doesn’t inform the drama. A pity, because there is considerable dramatic promise in The Gift. The performances are uniformly good, with sensitive direction by Dimitry Devdiani, and simple, effective design by Lili Barcroft, but in its current form the play doesn’t deliver to its full potential.

- Giles Cole


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