Only Our Own, Arts Theatre, London – review

There’s no doubt that Ann Henning Jocelyn has a fascinating subject for her new play. The Swedish playwright, who has lived in Ireland for 30 years, focuses on the Anglo-Irish, exploring what happened to those formerly privileged Protestant landowners who stayed on after the Irish war of independence. Interesting to look at history from that angle, and the play roves ambitiously across decades, exploring themes of resentment and reconciliation through the prism of one family and its intergenerational conflicts. The pity is that the drama itself just doesn’t live up to the potential: it’s a curiously awkward play, saddled with thinly drawn characters, stilted dialogue and a tendency to lapse into melodrama that Lars Harald Gathe’s uneven production doesn’t overcome.

The action is confined to one room – the dining room in a fishing lodge in Connemara – the sole set emphasising the isolation and insularity of the family. We first encounter them in 1989, enduring a miserable dinner, with septuagenarian Lady Eliza complaining haughtily that “pork is for servants” and squabbling with her sullen teenage granddaughter, Titania, about manners. Sandwiched between these two – the link to history and the link to the future – are Meg and Andrew, whose attitude to the past is to hush it up and who maintain a snobbish, frosty distance from the local Catholic community, to the point of leaving a man standing on the doorstep in a downpour. Lady Eliza (Elaine Montgomerie), who is dying, feels the silence should be broken and pens a letter to her granddaughter describing the night in 1922 when her family’s stately home in Tipperary was burnt to the ground. Meanwhile Titania rebels, running off with a local Catholic man and having two children with him. It is these children, who end up living with their grandparents when Titania disappears to America, who will force them to change.

The play raises interesting and resonant questions about how you move on from a bitterly divisive past. But the difficulty is that the issues drive the play too noticeably so that the characters often become mouthpieces. Of all of them Titania (Alex Gilbert) fares worst: she is such an unsympathetic character that it is hard to care about her, and she has some terrible lines. You feel for any actor who has to talk about her “fledgling soul”. Maev Alexander and Cornelius Garrett bring a nice warmth to the ageing and mellowing Meg and Andrew, but this play is an uphill struggle.

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