Reopening to live audiences for the first time in 15 months, the Abbey theatre’s warm welcome seems to come with a tongue-in-cheek smile. As audience members are individually escorted to their socially distanced seats, they are presented on stage with what they may have just left at home: a domestic interior, fitted out in realistic detail from kitchen sink to television.
Una McKevitt’s droll new play presents a single day in the life of a cooped-up family whose members are sorely in need of respite from each other. Although written during the pandemic, these characters are not actually in lockdown but tied together by the long-term illness of Frank (Bosco Hogan), who needs 24-hour care. His wife and carer, Brenda (Catherine Byrne), cannot leave the house without someone to keep an eye on him, and is fraying from exhaustion. Having chucked in her job, their adult daughter, Fiona (Liz Fitzgibbon), is back living at home – an unsatisfactory arrangement highlighted by a flying visit from her sister (Aoibhéann McCann).
Alternating between banter, bickering and nursing instructions, it takes a while for their everyday conversations to seem more than desultory. Directed by Emma Jordan, artistic director of Belfast’s Prime Cut, the show builds from its initially slow pace, cumulatively commanding attention to small moments of emotional connection. At times, the demanding Frank is able to sympathise with Fiona’s gloom, or enjoy a sneaky smoke with her friend (Shane O’Reilly). The ensemble cast gel perfectly, with understated performances creating an illusion of loose improvisation.
Although presented lightly, larger themes hover, namely the difficult choices this family has to make, familiar to so many and highlighted by the pandemic. Who does the work of caring for an older family member when they become seriously ill, and where is the best setting for that? Death shadows them but is treated without sentimentality – especially in the daughters’ bluntly pragmatic attitude to the loss of a much-loved neighbour at the age of 98.
McKevitt’s previous writing has been in documentary theatre form, drawing on interviews and candid first-person testimony. Here, she is fictionalising while retaining the texture of real life: just one day like any other, ordinariness artfully shaped into 80 minutes.
One Good Turn is at the Abbey theatre, Dublin, until 26 June. Available online until 10 July.