One of the perils of confessional theatre is that you may end up paying to witness someone airing their dirty laundry. When a play is overtly based on the writer’s real-life experiences, are we in for a dose of gratuitous navel-gazing or some real insight? In the case of Pentimento, this is not a major concern. This one-woman show explores something all of us must face at some point in our life: the death of a parent. Writer and actress Denise Stephenson does so with skill and a surprising amount of humour, despite the bulk of the story taking place on her mother’s deathbed. But odd as it may sound for such a personal show, Pentimento could have done with less of Stephenson’s perspective, giving the audience more freedom to develop their own reactions.
Her insightful performance is the heart of the show
Stephenson’s mother Roisin was a lively sort, born in Tipperary in the 1920s. She lived through the War and raised three children but, by the time we meet her, she’s hospitalised and failing fast. After a brief introduction to the audience, Stephenson smoothly transitions into an embodiment of her own mother, impersonating her increasingly nervous old-lady mannerisms as she chats with visiting family members.
But while Stephenson’s performance feels authentic, the goal of Pentimento isn’t entirely clear. Bookending Stephenson’s in-character performance as Roisin, we get to hear a pair of opening and closing monologues from Denise’s own perspective. In this context, it’s easy to stop thinking of this as a play, and start thinking of it as a kind of therapy for its creator. Who is being served here, the audience or the performer?
Luckily, Pentimento is far from an untrammelled flow of emotions. It may be a very personal story, but the subject matter is universal. Roisin’s presence is warm and grandmotherly, a cheeky old lady who winks at strapping young hospital nurses from her deathbed. In portraying this fictionalised version of her mother, Stephenson goes from fragile, frightened old woman to flirtatious 1940s nurse at the flick of a switch, inhabiting the strange mood swings of dementia with poise.
The main issue is Stephenson’s desire to break the fourth wall and tell us her own view of her mother’s life. Her insightful performance is the heart of the show, so Pentimento might have done better to avoid explaining itself to its audience.