Marylebone Theatre, London – until 6 May 2023
Maybe it’s because he’s a successful performer himself, one with an impressive array of top flight stage and screen credits, but Eugene O’Hare feels very much like an actors’ writer. He creates meaty, flawed, mighty characters and fills their mouths with the poetic and the profane, in plays that don’t flinch from the grimy underbelly of human existence but are shot through with jet black wit and unexpected moments of devastating tenderness. In short, he gives his colleagues some great stuff to get their teeth into. His astonishing three-hander, The Dry House, premiering at the new Marylebone Theatre in a well nigh perfect production by the author himself, continues to demonstrate his remarkable ability to pan beautiful gold from ugliness.
Set in an Irish border town, The Dry House is an excoriating study of the effects of alcoholism: the shame, deceit, self-abasement. It’s also about bereavement, family, and the little lies, self-delusion and tough love employed to allow under-examined lives to make it through to the next day.
Mairead McKinley is alcoholic Chrissy, whose life fell apart and whose drinking spiralled upwards when her teenage daughter Heather (Carla Langley) died in a car accident. Chrissy’s sister Claire (Kathy Kiera Clarke) arrives to get her sibling into a recovery facility (the “dry house” of the title), which she herself is paying for. Chrissy, in her drunken reveries, speaks to Heather, constantly replaying their final conversation. The play is a riveting fusion of naturalism and the fanciful. It intriguingly suggests that alcoholism is a sort of club, and that membership isn’t dependent on being from any particular stratum of society, however low or high, and acknowledges how hard it is to break the addiction: Chrissy is in the process, with Claire’s help, of tapering down her consumption, taking just the four cans of lager for breakfast(!).
It also amusingly depicts the snobbery and denial amongst boozers. Claire herself likes a drink or several but because she quaffs premium wines, instead of the supermarket spirits that are all Chrissy can afford, and keeps a clean house, she is automatically less at risk than her flailing sister. Interesting, for all the hold that alcohol clearly has over her, Chrissy is a woman of some wit and considerable insight. If an additional thematic strand regarding the dangers of the internet initially seems to belong to another play, it turns out to have a surprising but plausible pertinence to Heather’s lost young life.
The writing is sensational: raw, non-judgemental, spare then suddenly and deliciously baroque. Each of the characters gets an illuminating monologue, and the combination of storytelling, insight and sheer acting skill from all three brilliant performers fair pin you to your seat. Remarkably, the play ends on a sort-of optimistic note, but prepare to have the wind knocked out of you.
O’Hare’s earlier plays The Weatherman and Sydney and the Old Girl were seen at the Park Theatre pre-pandemic and gave acclaimed actors such as Alec Newman (in the former), Miriam Margolyes (in the latter) and Mark Hadfield (in both) roles to revel in. The Dry House affords similarly challenging but satisfying opportunities to a trio of magnificent actresses, and McKinley, Clarke and Langley are delivering breathtakingly good work. Niall McKeever’s appropriately grim, fully realised set and Robbie Butler’s deceptively ingenious lighting design are further elements to savour in a virtually flawless piece of theatre.
All in all, this is a bracing, brutal, bruising and beautiful ninety minutes, and I suspect it’ll turn out to be one of the best new plays of the year. I can’t see the pubs in the Marylebone area doing much of a trade every night after performances of this though.