THEATRE / Distant echoes: Paul Taylor reviews Anne Devlin's After Easter

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The Independent Culture
A programme was broadcast last night called, with sublime misguidedness, There's Only One Brian Moore. The makers had evidently never heard of the sports commentator's even more distinguished namesake, the Irish-born novelist. It's this latter whose work you are strongly reminded of by the premise of After Easter, Anne Devlin's new play, unveiled now at the Other Place in Stratford.

Like Moore's novel Cold Heaven, it plunges you into the plight of a female atheist who finds herself chosen as the reluctant recipient of religious visions. And, like Moore's heroine, Devlin's protagonist, Greta - an ex-Catholic, Irish immigrant living in Oxford with her faithless husband and her unbaptised children - is led to believe that other people's survival depends upon her compliance with these obscure supernatural directives.

Devlin does not, however, exploit the situation's potential for tension in the psychological thriller mode of Moore. Instead, with Greta called back to Northern Ireland when her father suffers a heart attack, the play becomes more a study of how exiles need to return home and confront the ghosts of their past, private and collective. Only by so doing, we gather, can they avoid the fate of being mere echoes of other people's voices. The apparition she saw in England which felt to her 'as if the whole of Ireland was crying out to me' may have been (it's never fully resolved) a reverse-projection of her own psychic needs.

Finely acted by Michael Attenborough's large cast and with a flawless performance from Stella Gonet as Greta, the play works best in its many mordantly comic moments. It is less convincing when it tries to wear a solemn, poetic expression, and it feels overstuffed with material that you long to see developed as drama in its own right. I was particularly intrigued by Greta's hard-headed mother, who runs a shop selling the sort of outfits in which children make their first Holy Communions. It's a role she capitalises on by lending money at high interest rates so that the poor and pious can buy her wares on tick and gratefully escape damnation.

Devlin derives two choice pieces of comedy from this fact. First, when Greta (in a sadly off-stage episode) responds to her inner voices by stealing a chalice from a monastery and distributing the hosts at bus-stops, all her mother can think of is how this will affect her own chances of acquiring a school uniform franchise. Second, when, during an outbreak of sectarian violence, some English soldiers demand to see inside a package being carried by the son of the family (William Houston), it turns out, in a lovely absurd touch, to contain the innocuous little lace veils worn by child communicants.

You wish, though, that there were time to get inside the shop and observe Irish culture from this arresting vantage point at greater leisure. As it is, the play, which ends with a soppy, evasive allegory, tries to cram in enough for a mini-series. Better, though, to have a play that fights on too many fronts than one which doesn't even know there's a war on.

Continues at the Other Place (Box office: 0789 295623)

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