THEATRE / A map of the heartlands: The Wexford Trilogy - The Bush, London W12

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
At the Bush, west London, you can currently spend a whole day in south-east Ireland without leaving the comfort of your theatre seat. Billy Roche's Wexford Trilogy, staged play by play at the same address over the last four years, has now been drawn together, allowing you to see all three in one day. And while you scarcely emerge with a cartographer's knowledge of Wexford (the plays are set in a pool hall, a betting shop and a church belfry, and do not budge outside those walls), you do leave well versed in the emotional geography of small-town life.

The three plays have no continuity of character or story-it is their common themes and voice that yoke them together. Yet what is remarkable about seeing them together is how they enhance one another, each offering a different route into similar material. Roche may deal in small spaces and small lives, but he does so with such depth and compassion that his plays become huge; he may deal with frustration, but he writes such earthy, funny dialogue that the plays sprint along, affirming their characters' spirit and importance even while detailing their shortcomings.

All three plays handle repression, loneliness, extinguished hopes and the misdemeanours of fathers being repeated by their sons. Yet the trilogy progresses in spirit - the plays finish with rebelliousness; then resignation, then rebirth.

A Handful of Stars, set in a shabby pool hall, moves like a western. Men make their entrances bursting through the door, to hold the floor with gossip and insults. Roche focuses on Jimmy and Tony, two likely lads who are about to take their places in the scheme of things: Tony by marrying his pregnant girlfriend and subsiding into mediocrity and Jimmy by running riot and getting himself classed as a trouble-maker. The play's strength, though, is that it does not simplify - Jimmy is the son of a violent father, but he is also goaded on by the manipulative Conway, and infuriated by the town's corruption.

In Poor Beast in the Rain Roche shifts his focus to the no-hopers left behind. This time we are in the betting shop run by Eileen and her father, whose wife ran off long ago with the rebel 'Danger' Doyle. More brittle, funnier and yet sadder than A Handful of Stars, the play probes around the hole left by the couple's departure. When Danger returns to coax Eileen to visit her mother in England, the audience realises how small was the real stature of this man, compared with the size conferred upon him by those he left. Roche combines a sense of the ridiculous with the tragic - as Eileen leaves with Danger, repeating step for step the actions of her mother, her father's dignified pain is heartbreaking.

But the final play, Belfry, is the finest. More complicated in structure - composed of flashbacks that shift back and forth in time - it also moves forward a stage thematically. This time the protagonist breaks out of his confines and gains something. This is a tale of passionate love between Artie, a middle-aged sacristan, and the married housewife who comes to do the altar flowers. For Artie, both sexual and paternal love come in borrowed form - love towards Angela, someone else's wife, and towards Dominic, the misunderstood altar boy, someone else's son. He loses both, but rediscovers something of his father's nonconformist spirit, which has been repressed in him. Roche deftly illustrates the vulnerability and loneliness of his characters, but also their courage, and in Artie's affection for Dominic celebrates a quiet, selfless love.

Robin Lefevre's lovingly detailed productions are packed with excellent performances - most notably from Des McAleer, Aidan Gillen and Gary Lydon - and Andrew Wood's designs are so convincing that the day I was there a drinker from the pub downstairs had to be forcibly restrained from trying to have a game of pool on the set.

'The Wexford Trilogy' continues at the Bush, W12: 081-743 3388.