Greta Garbo Came to Donegal, Tricycle Theatre, London

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Frank McGuinness writes extraordinary ordinary women. From his early play The Factory Girls through to Dolly West’s Kitchen and beyond, he has excelled at creating female characters who are insightful and articulate, but whose down-to-earth manner of expression ensures they never seem unnaturally so. There is at least one of this marvellous species in his latest play, along with an unambiguously extraordinary woman, namely the screen idol of the title.

In some ways McGuinness’s Donegal – that northwestern county of Ireland, part of the province of Ulster though not of Northern Ireland – is similar to Brian Friel’s fictitious Ballybeg in the same area: all human life is here, in one form or another, one era or another. As for this era, we only need to hear an old valve radio blaring out Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco” and see the teenage Colette’s style of dancing to know that it is 1967.

The Sixties have hit even Donegal: the Hennessy family may be reduced to working as domestics in the “big house” their business-bourgeois family so recently owned, but they are far more exercised by the fact that their new master is an English aristocrat than that he is conducting a gay affair with the Cockney ex-boxer he employs as a gardener. When he invites his old friend Garbo (by now a quarter of a century in retirement) to stay, with notions of selling the house off to her, her dispassionate truth-telling acts as the catalyst for a batch of realisations among the family regarding Colette’s educational ambitions, her parents’ love-in-hate marriage and above all the nature of her Aunt Paulie’s life.

Paulie is the great McGuinness woman in the play, and Michelle Fairley turns in a magnificent performance, as her protective cynicism peels away to reveal both regrets and still-active dreams. Angeline Ball as her sister-in-law, Colette’s mother Sylvia, has had her tongue sharpened by life’s grindstone, and Caroline Lagerfelt relishes her portrayal of Garbo right from the deliberately self-parodic opening; very quickly afterwards, though, (as the posters used to say) Garbo laughs. Garbo even dances – a tango with Paulie.

Much of the first half of the play feels like an obvious fantasy, but a delicious one; much of the second follows a conventional scheme of family revelations, but does so with sensitivity. McGuinness is not afraid of sentimentality, but he pinches it off before it begins to flow too freely.

There is an air not just of personal portent but also of political: just over the border in Derry, the Northern Irish civil rights campaign is beginning that will within two years escalate and be corrupted into the Troubles. The age of English nobs in republican Donegal is ending (the final knell would be Earl Mountbatten’s murder there in 1979), as is a chapter in the Hennessys’ lives, but another is beginning. A truism, of course, but one beautifully expressed in McGuinness’s play and Nicolas Kent’s production. ()

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