The McKenna family has gathered at their holiday home in the remote west of Ireland to mark the 21st birthday of their youngest son, Gene. His mother has baked a cake in his honour. But the occasion doubles as a painful, belated wake - for, two years ago, having drunk gallons of alcohol, the young man slashed his wrists on the beach, and he's present now only in the troubled reflections and haunted memories of his parents, brother and sister, and the batty old female cousin who lives in the locality and who found his bleeding body.
Premiered in a well-acted and adroitly modulated production by Michael Attenborough, Frank McGunness's perceptive new play explores the divisive emotional legacy of suicide, as the baffled, guilty, angry survivors struggle to cope with their grief. The parents have immersed themselves in work - the father Leo (Ian McElhinney) with his expanding empire of pubs; Imelda Staunton's excellent Margaret, a Donegal peasant turned domineering don, with her academic teaching. By contrast, the brother and sister (Aidan McCardle and Elaine Cassidy) have settled for underachievement, as (respectively) a book-seller and a primary school mistress. Margaret, who clawed her way from a deprived background to professional success, is determined that feelings are going to be kept in check and so has banned alcohol.
But then, generating tension just before the interval, the cranky crone of a cousin, Bridget (beautifully played by Eileen Atkins), produces the unopened suicide note that she has withheld for two years. Gene has arrived at his wake in the shape of a bald, enigmatic message that merely intensifies the speculation about why he killed himself. Self-recrimination and mutual hostility erupt. The mother knew that he was stealing money from her and that addiction was probably at the bottom of it, but she turned a blind eye because she had become unable to communicate with him and wanted to keep his thieving inside the family. As to her other son, is it his sibling's suicide that has convinced him that he does not want children of his own, or is the mother the underlying cause of both?
Liberally quoting the poetry of Keats - "Thou was not born for death, immortal bird" she pronounces tremulously, as she gazes at the suicide note - Margaret discovers that literature cannot protect her from her raw, inchoate grief. Astutely, McGuinness shows how, under such emotional pressure, this highly educated Irish woman can lapse into a kind of Celtic superstition. Although she made a point of including her children in her professional life and of taking them into the office (despite the disapproval of colleagues - "you'd think I'd given birth in the corridor"), Margaret had secured her job through a lie. She told the selectors that she did not have a family. Maybe, she now feels, this brought bad luck and Gene's suicide is her punishment.
Rattling on eccentrically about everything from her alleged marriage to Lucifer to the damage St Patrick did to Ireland's cuisine when he expelled the snakes, the old cousin Bridget is a ambiguous, tragicomic creation - and Atkins's marvellous performance keeps you guessing about whether this tactless, lonely, manipulative, self-consciously witchy personage (or, in her own description "confused fairy") is wiser than the others.
Furious at her behaviour over the suicide note, and jealous that it was Bridget who found and cradled the corpse, Margaret puts her down by bitterly professing envy at her insanity - "living in this wilderness, you have your life ordered".
But perhaps the father's long conversation with Bridget towards the end of the play prepares him for the insight that is as near to liberation as he and Margaret come: even knowing how the story ends, they would still choose Gene and not want him changed.
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