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The New Electric Ballroom

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Enda Walsh has been in the news lately for his screenplay (co-written with Steve McQueen) for Hunger, the highly acclaimed film about the Maze prison hunger strikes of 1981.

But The New Electric Ballroom, seen at last year’s Edinburgh Festival, finds him back in his more theatrical helter-skelter groove; this is a powerful, poetic play for three sisters in a remote Irish fishing village who are unlikely to get as far as Cork City, let alone Dublin or Moscow.

The script is a dazzling corkscrew of memory and sadness. Two older sisters, Breda and Rose, played with sumptuous misery and resignation by Rosaleen Linehan and Ruth McCabe, are supervised, almost manipulated, by the much younger sister Ada (Catherine Walsh) – whom you might mistake as a daughter, or even a medical attendant – playing back an old tape, or possibly making a new recording.

We could be in a living room, or a bleak cannery where Ada cycles to work, or an institution. Breda delivers the opening speech into the wall, back to the audience. There’s a pink-iced cake in the room, but no cause for celebration. Life has stood still since one particular night in the ballroom, when dreams evaporated during a crooner’s act.

The episode is recreated with stunning theatricality in Walsh’s own production for the Druid in Galway, where the play was premiered in July last year before going to Edinburgh. The fish delivery boy Patsy (Mikel Murfi) turns up with a crate of silver fish, and is pressed into the tin bath, stripped and given an electric blue suit to do the honours.

The women take turns to wear the rara skirts and pink blouses from the clothes rail, and the idea of repetitive ritual in a hopeless situation is the same as in The Walworth Farce, Walsh’s other play for Druid. It’s clearly a structural device owing much to Beckett, just as the torrent of words and specific local detail of events and characters are irresistibly reminiscent of James Joyce and Dylan Thomas.

But Walsh is his own man and you hang on for dear life, and eighty minutes, to the rollercoaster language and the heart-breaking humanity of his characters and their dismal circumstances. The actors are four of Ireland’s finest, and it’s a treat to see them in London.

- Michael Coveney


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