Little Gem

Three women, a triptych of three generations, sit apart, facing you on the stage. Silent, waiting. Then one is lighted. She stands. Words burst forth like a dam released; a torrent of seemingly scattered banalia concerning deb dances, dildos and J-cloths. You become engulfed in a year of birth, death and self-discovery. Amber (Sarah Greene) is having wretched hangovers and a problem with her 'yokes'. Her missed periods, she thinks, are definitely from mixing drinks or maybe a side effect of a Yoga DVD? Her boyfriend is thinking; Australia. Lorraine (Hilda Fay), Amber's mum, is ordered to see a shrink by HR at her work and is not really sure why. Granny Kay (Anita Reeves) is dying for her 'bit' since Gem's incapacitating stroke a year ago. All three, suffused with life, are somehow unaware of a precipice they have been advancing towards. The play skims and dives through their annus horribilis while artfully shaping into a moving, comic tribute to the ineluctable, slender bond which ties us together across lifetimes; familial and enduring love. But Amber, Lorraine and Kay never touch, never look at each other directly. They address the audience in alternating monologues. You wonder will they every reach out to the one beside them?The characters are every bit your Dublin women but not the stereotype. With pure Liffey running through their veins, you'd think that writer Elaine Murphy spent her time recording chatterboxes on the 42b, the women are so vivid. I bent my ear to a couple of girls on the DART on the way home and heard echoes of the same voices on stage. But the voices we hear belong to the actors. Ms. Fay's giddy riff of a performance rips black and white text from the page and illuminates Lorraine with colour and alacrity. Her movements are elastic, her choices clear and she refrains from punching, trusting the text. Ms. Reeves follows with a warm characterisation that evokes a fireside chat but can spin it around into a fierce 'oulwan' at a click. She pushes in one or two places where it's not needed in the same way that Ms. Greene, though blindingly alive, loses range by racing. Equally, this is a directorial issue, a case of sipping and gulping, balancing pace with the richness of the text. The words are lyrical and meaty; “unce, unce, unce”, “Mee-hea, Meehea” - the bass tone of club music and the sheep-on-acid laugh of one Amber's co-workers respectively. The volume and pace of words filling the theatre is striking. Clearly we're traveling through the unique geography of Irish storytelling, one which Ms. Murphy has an inner, brimming passport to, stuffed with wit, rancour and estrogen fueled sarcasm that will glue your ear to the stage. But there's something else. Behind the tumult of words, there's a closed door and the separation on stage begins to make sense. “Sit there in silence as she irons tea towels. We never really talk” says Amber about her mother. The characters seem to live in the moment, on the surface as if pushing down what lies beneath. But the past creeps in. We learn, for example, that as the family waited for a bus to go on holiday years ago, Lorraine's husband, Ray, went for sweets and just never came back. They're great at observing each other “She won't even deal with what's going on in her own house” says Lorraine of Kay. But when it comes to their own lives, the shades are drawn. It's almost as if they are punking themselves in self-parody, distancing themselves from their own experiences “Must be a bit of a mentaller, because she gave me a prescription for me tablets” says Lorraine of herself. It is ironic that glancing blows from the vicissitudes of life is what begins to open a door for each of these women. All this delivers a cascading journey for the audience though ending somewhat squeakily with an ending that just shoots past the emotional pinnacle that seemed to be coming. But we are in the cycle of life, so the end here is another beginning. This is the theme of destiny; to surely lose the ones we love, suffer that despair but always gain with the hope of the birth of another, like little Gem, who starts the next generation and begins the cycle again. Alice Butler's set is simple and effective. Three chairs, a lamp and carpet, redolent of a waiting room. Projections randomly spill out on the rear wall, though they seem like overkill as they tend to tell us something we know already – like when Amber tells us about her work, a computer screen appears at the same time. However, when the fetus appeared it did not have an underscoring effect but introduced another character – Little Gem and therefore worked. Some of the sound elements come in on emotional beats that scream at the audience 'Feel something!'.The origins of this play are from Ms. Murphy's time at a women's health organisation where she felt inspired by the women she encountered there. In her own words she described them as “not particularly rich or poor...the recession won't make much of a difference to them either, you know, women like us, getting on with it” . But don't be fooled in thinking she is an expert mimic. Ms. Murphy is a crack observer, piercing the complex layers draped over people. On Neil's unhappy past Lorraine says “But he seems happier blaming himself, so I say nothing” and again, nailing Neil “..gets embarrassed, as if every time he presumes something he's insulting me”.What is obviously absent but oft referred to is the men. In different ways, men have failed each of these women. Paul abandons Amber, Ray abandoned Lorraine and, Kay is left without Gem before she is ready for him to go. But the women are always there for each other, at least by virtue of their presence.But it would be wrong to pigeon hole this play as feminist stage-chlick. For example, when Amber sees Paul's parents, who had yet to see their grandson on account of Paul's faithless wanderlust and denial of fatherhood, she goes to them. Amber says quietly “Do you want to see the real thing?”. The woman literally shakes in response and her husband puts his hand over hers to try and calm her. Amber takes Little Gem and puts him in her grandmother's arms for the very first time. Yes, these three women, Kay, Lorraine and Amber put their arms around, not just each other, but anyone who calls themselves family.

The Blurb

Three generations of women. One extraordinary year. Sex, birth, death, dildos, and salsa classes. A year of courage, comedy and romance in the award-winning hit of the 2008 Dublin Fringe Festival. By Elaine Murphy. 'Hilarious' (Sunday Times)