Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Intemperance’, which is at the New Victoria Theatre in Newcastle-Under-Lyme until Saturday 20th April
I always feel a play without hope cannot be complete. There is something missing from the playwright’s palette. Lizzie Nunnery infuses her first ever play (originally produced in 2007) with plenty of hopes and dreams – but you just know they are all going to be dashed by the final curtain.
Her beautifully executed portrait of just how grinding life was in the run-down Irish quarter of Liverpool in the middle of the 19th century is stark and unrelenting … and makes for a tough two hours. Yet, Zoe Waterman’s new production is so excitably vital, and her cast so fully committed, you cannot but help becoming embroiled in the family’s fight for betterment in the face of the worst enemy of all – themselves.
Like a million others, the McLoughlin family has fled the potato famine and washed up in Britain’s second city of the time – the Port of Liverpool. The man of the house has fled even further – leaving Millie with two grown up children and a bedridden father in an airless, windowless, hovel of a room. Cholera sweeps through the slums. The walls are so thin, you can hear every move the neighbours make. It is reported that they are grabbing their stomachs and begging for a piece of coal.
The hope that arrives is Scandinavian; a new, correct and upstanding Norwegian husband for Millie, played very satisfyingly by a Norwegian actor – Oystein Kanestrom. He has put Millie in the family way again but has a new suit and a job offer that will bring in £85 a year and will rehouse them all in three rooms on Lime Street. What can possibly go wrong? The answer, unfortunately, is everything. As the middle classes of the time believed, some families just invite hardship – lured by the demon drink.
There are five very fine performances in this piece.
John O’Mahony spends the whole play in a boxbed…telling glorious tales of a life spent at sea. The lyrical stories his character Fergal tells are pure magic; full of emotion and Irish exaggeration. (Listen out for the one about the icicle and the naked girl). O’Mahony makes him vulnerable – because he’s dying – and resilient – because he’s been that way since he was a cabin boy. There’s a wily wisdom about him. When his wild, rebellious grandson, Ruairi, moans that “we all end up dead, grandad”, his gentle retort is, “yes, but some of us live first”. His bedbound posture doesn’t seem to prevent him filling the stage…which, very thoughtfully, revolves from time to time to refresh the scene.
Thomas Grant’s portrayal of the youngest of the family is a classic example of a trapped teenager, desperate to make his way in the world, despite his poor start, and dramatically destroying his family’s prize possession in the process. Granddad elicits a promise from him that he will still listen to him when he needs him most … and when Ruairi casts the old man off on his final voyage, it’s a chilling moment.
His older sister Niamh, meanwhile, is making rather more money than she ought. The actor Niamh Finlay plays her as a circumspect young woman who thinks she is being pragmatic and worldly wise … but is not quite savvy enough to get away with it.
And at the fulcrum of the play is a quite stupendous performance by Krissi Bohn as the tempestuous Irish mother, Millie. She has striven to do her best in impossible circumstances but has existed in a family that rejects love for far too long. The Achilles heel that destroyed so many displaced people down the centuries threatens everything. Miss Bohn has calibre and class and a knack of being utterly believable.
There are some subtle staging tricks in this production. The roof leaks and we can actually see the drips dropping into a bucket, that is casually moved each time the stage does a quarter turn. Washing adorns the rig and the woman spend their spare moments teasing and twisting wool to earn a few extra farthings. And we really can hear the neighbours making music next door It’s little things like that which enhance the atmosphere no end.
‘Intemperance’ is never going to be a fun night out. But theatre is not all frolics … and when it comes to gritty, historic realism, this is a fine example. My Lancashire forebears would have lived like that … and hundreds of millions in the world today still do.