Who knew penises were like buses? Having not seen one onstage all year in 2009, a couple popped up in Six Degrees… on Thursday, and a third came along today in Greta Garbo Came To Donegal at the Tricycle theatre in Kilburn. Frank McGuinness has taken a fact, Greta Garbo did in fact use a friend’s castle in Ireland as a retreat, and spun a fictional tale set in 1967’s Donegal where cultural and sexual change is threatening the established order, epitomised by the arrival of the Swedish filmstar.
Garbo (Caroline Lagerfelt) arrives at the house of an aristocratic painter friend, Matthew Dover (Daniel Geroll) with a view to maybe purchasing this property, but it is soon clear that they are both weighted down with the pressures of dealing with homosexual attractions, Dover with his wideboy South London bodyguard, Garbo with the housekeeper Paulie (Michelle Fairley), whose family in a cruel twist of fate used to own the house where she is now forced to serve. Garbo’s presence also awakes other frustrations elsewhere in the house with a young niece straining to escape the yoke of familial obligation and pursue her own dreams.
Lagerfeld wisely underplays her Garbo, giving her a real authenticity as a character and her whip-sharp comments and venom-laden putdowns are often a sight to behold. Michelle Fairley is also excellent as the put-down Paulie who demonstrates a lifetime of frustration and hinted-at abuse with superb grace, and the way in which the friendship between the two slowly develops is the one main pleasure of the play. The rest of the characters are acted well but crucially given precious little to do and I have to admit to checking my watch more than once.
There are easy comparisons to be made with Dancing at Lughnasa, assisted by Michelle Fairley appearing them both, but this is a more saccharine view of Ireland, tinged with a nostalgia which at times does feel a little cloying. This isn’t a bad play by any means, and there’s two cracking female performances to be found here, but in all honesty not enough happens to justify the bloated running time, and I’d struggle to recommend it.