The Paines Plough Roundabout is an incredibly versatile venue. Though its playing space is small and surrounded by audience seating, it often feels expansive – inclusive of the characters’ whole worlds. In Island Town, it – like the oft discussed horizons of the three characters – feels tiny, and shrinks smaller by the minute.
The acting is an absolute tour de force
Kate, Pete, and Sam are teenagers in a town with no name, no jobs, and no prospects for sixteen-year-old school leavers like them. But they have each other, which is good, because they’ve also got plenty of issues. Kate’s dad is sick and dying. Sam’s parents fight constantly and wake up her baby sister. Pete’s older brother is always angry, and just got his girlfriend pregnant.
We meet Kate first, and she’s concerned that if she tells us what she’s done, we won’t care about her, or like her. But she’s got to get it out of her head. This challenge, and the jerky, eerily lit transitions, keep the stakes high as it becomes increasingly clear that Kate needs the booze the trio share more than the other two and that her dream of driving away from the town forever is tinged with a nihilism that contradicts the smaller but more accessible goals of her mates. Sam only wants to protect her younger sister and Pete dreams of starting a family of his own.
The acting is an absolute tour de force – rarely have I seen adult actors so convincingly portray teenagers. We track the characters from the age of fifteen through eighteen, and the subtle maturation over that period speaks to incredible work from all three actors as well as director Stef O’Driscoll.
Despair is a tricky emotion to get an audience to empathise with. As humans, we are hardwired to fight it off by any means necessary. Island Town is clever in that it doesn’t ask us to – instead, it explores characters clinging to ever smaller bits of hope. They are fully aware there are no ‘good’ choices. They are aware that they are trying to make the best of an increasingly bad situation. And Kate, the only one advocating for complete escape, is clearly the least lucid, the least capable of actually surviving, and the most relentlessly negative.
Kate’s challenge at the beginning is only half right. She is a hard person to like, by the time the audience trickles back into sunlight. But equally, she is impossible not to care about, raising questions to the last moment about responsibility and the ability of any of us to escape where we come from.