Review: Portia Coughlan, Old Red Lion

“He’s closing in on me and I can hear his footfall crossing the worlds”

Quite how Marina Carr’s Portia Coughlan hasn’t been seen here since its 1996 debut seems scarcely credible, such is the power of Bronagh Logan’s revival for Aria Entertainment at the Old Red Lion. Caught in the hinterland between rural Irish family drama and something altogether more ghostly, it is a ferociously punchy play, akin to dropping rock after rock into the still water of the nearby bog, watching more and more ripples clash against each other and wrecking the calm.

Portia is turning 30 but she’s already hitting the whiskey before 10am, such is her disillusionment with life as wife to a dull husband and mother of three. She tries to find succour at the bottom of any number of bottles and in numerous affairs with the men of the village but she’s irrevocably haunted by the death of her twin brother some 15 years past and try as she might, she can’t resist the siren call that seems to be calling her to him.

Though the title character is very much at the centre of the play, and Susan Stanley’s fiercely captivating performance is full of unruly spirit and barefoot abandon, Carr’s story is about the community as a whole and the structure of the play reflects this, deploying a little narrative tricksiness to show how incestuously close all these friends and neighbours are with all their shared secrets and lies, which naturally spill forth to explain something of Portia’s disenchantment with life.

Veronica Quilligan and James Holmes form a cracking double act as friends of the family, Anne Kent’s wheelchair-bound harridan is marvellously monstrous and as the men dancing to Portia’s beat, Conan Sweeny’s wisecracking barman, Alan Devally’s devilishly handsome lover and Ben Mulhern’s too-tolerant husband all cultivate the sense of wanting, needing, more than she could ever give them.

Carr’s vivid characterisations come to life brilliantly through the extremity of the language used, poetic and profane, humorous and horrific, its blackly comic heart drives a compelling sense of pace and then of revelation. And in Nik Corrall’s imaginative design which works wonders in this intimate space, there’s a specificity to the action that further explains Portia’s desire to flee. Hauntingly effective and thought-provoking too, this is an exceptionally well-judged revival.

Running time: 85 minutes (without interval)
Photo: Claire Bilyard

Booking until 23rd May

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