Theatre Review: Outside Mullingar at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal, Bath
This review was first written for The Public Reviews
The setting for Outside Mullingar is pinpointed by its American writer John Patrick Shanley to “a cattle and sheep farm outside Killucan” in Ireland. Inspired by the area where his cousin still lives, in the intimacy of the Ustinov, this sense of place becomes palpable. The atmospheric set, designed by Richard Kent, doubles as both the inside and outside of the rural location – a meticulously detailed unkempt country kitchen blending into a farm gate, barn wall and well-trodden, rain-soaked turf.
In the aftermath of a funeral, old-timers Tony Reilly and Aoife Muldoon share tea and memories across the kitchen table. Obsessed with their own mortality, they agree they too will be dead within a year and speculate about what will happen to their land. Carol Macready’s Aoife is devout and fatalistic – she has buried her husband that day and is certain to leave her farm to her daughter Rosemary. James Hayes as Tony is prickly and darkly critical; less sure about whether his son Anthony deserves to inherit. And then there’s the thorny issue of a symbolic strip of land owned by the Muldoons, which separates the Reilly farm from the road and prevents any easy sale to affluent American relatives.
The younger generation – now in middle age – are also bound to the blessings and burdens of the land but with different priorities, caught up in the aching romantic comedy of a love so slow burning it may never catch light. Attractive and spirited, Rosemary (Deirdre O’Kane) has turned away many suitors because of her yearning for Anthony (Owen McDonnell). But there’s a reason why the self-effacing Anthony has never married all these years, a solemnly sworn secret in the Reilly clan.
There are many beautifully observed moments with satisfying outcomes – the explanation for the Muldoons holding on to the disputed strip of land, Aoife’s Father Ted-like reason for not drinking from a glass, the lyrical losing and finding of Anthony’s dead mother’s ring. There are fine performances too, particularly from O’Kane as the feisty, increasingly embittered Rosemary who, after years of words unspoken, confronts Anthony in the riveting final scene. And Sam Yates’ direction brings out the change of pace with great poignancy, as Tony in ill-health eventually softens towards his son, recounting the story of his own slow-burn love for Anthony’s mother.
Outside Mullingar, which premiered in New York in January 2014, might not quite live up to the acclaim Shanley earned for his previous 2005 Pulitzer prize-winning play Doubt. At times, particularly in the opening sequence, it talks itself round in circles rather than propelling the story forwards. It’s occasionally difficult to believe that a girl as driven as Rosemary would have the patience or desire to throw away her youth for Anthony. And the reason for his reticence, once revealed, stretches credulity.
Yet, although it reaches out for and doesn't always fully grasp the profound, Outside Mullingar is a thoughtful, moving and often hilarious watch.