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Who or what is the pride of Parnell Street? For Joe, ex-drug addict and convict, it is his wife Janet, the love of his life, carelessly thrown aside in a violent outburst. For Janet herself it is a shop assistant she saw as a child, tending to the wounded after the devastating Dublin car bombs of 1974. But for playwright Sebastian Barry, we suspect, it is something harder to pin down: some spirit of resilience that will not be cowed by violence or loss. This new play is a warts-and-all love story, but as well as charting the complex feelings between two people, it perhaps expresses Barry’s affection for Dublin and its people.
It is certainly no conventional love story. It unfolds in interwoven monologues, with the two characters recounting the break-up of their marriage a decade earlier. Even the halcyon days, as they recall them, sound pretty bleak. She had her first child at 16; they lived a life of petty crime and poverty. But they both protest they were happy: until the night when Joe inexplicably beat up his wife and she walked out.
Why did he do it? Was it a delayed reaction to the loss of a child? Or did a defeat for the Ireland football team bring home to him the dead-end nature of his own life? Neither partner can say, but that sudden act changed their world, and Barry charts the long road to reconciliation.
The play belongs to an Irish tradition of storytelling theatre, built up of interlocking monologues. In Jim Culleton’s production for Fishamble theatre company the two actors rise to the feat of memory this demands: Karl Shiels is very strong as rough, remorseful Joe and Mary Murray is excellent as brave, candid Janet.
The form has limitations: at times you are desperate for dialogue. Its strength though lies in subtlety: Barry charts tiny details as the two characters edge back towards one another. It is a play that celebrates the importance of listening and the beauty of the spoken word. And Barry writes so well, with compassion for his characters and love of the Dublin dialect, that the play draws you in.