We see them on our television screens all too often: mothers, struggling with the unimaginable grief of losing a child. Sal, the character in Frank McGuinness’s drama, has watched them too, and, along with everyone else, shuddered at the hell they must be living through. Now, however, she is one of them. McGuinness’s one-woman play makes the imaginative leap into that hell, as Sal talks us through her experience. It’s a harrowing piece, but it is flecked with humour and grapples with themes of guilt, forgiveness, revenge and redemption.
To begin with, Sal – a consummate performance by Leanne Best – comes over as likeable but a little strange. Living in a barely furnished, one-room cottage in a remote corner of Ireland, she chats away as if we were unanticipated, but not unwelcome guests. She talks about how quiet it is, how she used to come here for holidays – all pretty straightforward stuff. Quite what this vibrant young Liverpudlian is doing living here as a hermit is a bit perplexing. It is only when she starts striking matches from the pile of boxes on the table and talking about the smell of sulphur that we begin to realise just how damaged this young woman is.
Before long it has poured out of her: the unplanned pregnancy, the surprising support of her Irish Catholic mother, the joys and trials of being a single mum, and then the day her life stopped when Mary, just 12, was killed simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But Sal is not out to shock: she is drawing us through her grief-soaked thoughts and her conflicting urges to forgive her daughter’s killers and to avenge her death.
McGuinness’s script reflects both his Irish background and his experience of adapting Greek tragedy. Here is the confessional monologue often seen in Irish drama; here is an enduring onstage limbo as in Beckett’s plays; but here too is the unfettered anguish and rage of a Greek tragic heroine. And in the battle between revenge and forgiveness there is tension between Christian teaching and older ethical codes.
It’s a gruelling piece and rather too long. But it is delivered with astonishing and moving bravery by Best in Lia Williams’ production (first seen at Liverpool Playhouse last year). Mischievous, unpredictable and finally distressing in her wild, unreachable grief, she forces you to look even when you would rather look away.