Portia Coughlan review: A portentous but unsatisfying tale of a woman hell-bent on self-destruction

‘Conversations With Friends’ star Alison Oliver is moodily compelling as a dissatisfied mother haunted by her dead twin, but Marina Carr’s play is anti-climactic

Alice Saville
Wednesday 18 October 2023 12:18 BST
<p>Kathy Kiera Clarke and Alison Oliver in ‘Portia Coughlan’ </p>

Kathy Kiera Clarke and Alison Oliver in ‘Portia Coughlan’

Written long before notions of an “unlikeable female heroine” set TV execs salivating, Marina Carr’s 1996 play Portia Coughlan centres on a prickly, messed-up woman who’s bent on her own destruction. Carrie Cracknell’s revival at the Almeida Theatre laboriously shades in the mythic Irish world she lives in, a lyrical background to its once-controversial themes.

It’s Portia’s 30th birthday. But instead of enjoying a quiet candlelit supper with her rich but uninspiring husband Raphael (Chris Walley) while her three children are tucked up in bed, she’s rebelling against the suffocating comforts of rural wifedom. Alison Oliver brings a compelling, adolescent moodiness to this central role, skulking through the wreckage of her life in denim cut-off shorts, refusing to grow up. She bickers with her illicit lover on the banks of the river where her twin drowned, half a lifetime ago. She torments the local barman with the prospect of a quick fling, too, with her one-eyed friend (nicknamed Cyclops) an unwilling wingwoman. All the while, her children play and cry for her, unseen – she won’t go to them, for fear of strangling them.

There’s mythical force in spades here: Portia talks of a wolf’s tooth, lodged in her heart, which condemns her to an early grave. Accordingly, Cracknell’s production stirs up a maelstrom of Irish gothic atmosphere to heighten the mood. Alex Eales’s striking set design is a massive cascade of rocks, seeming to tumble into Portia’s wallpapered living room. Archee Aitch Wylie soundtracks the spaces between scenes with the folk-tinged outpourings of loss and longing that fill Maimuna Memon’s heartrending score. Guy Hoare’s lighting design submerges the stage in twilit gloom, long before the sun sets. Still, it feels as though these portentous trappings arrive too early. There’s humour in Carr’s play, too: Portia claims to prefer a good jigsaw to sex and enjoys scandalising her nosy relatives. Here, the laughs often feel lost along the way – although Kathy Kiera Clarke and Fergal McElherron make a hilarious double act as Portia’s disreputable aunt and uncle.

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