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Theatre Review Bathos in Ballybeg

RUBY FISCHER sees a production charting the decline and fall of grandees in an Irish backwater which mostly hits the right melancholic notes

Aristocrats
Donmar Warehouse, London  

IN BRIAN FRIEL'S world of Chopin and hangovers, the once grand O'Donnell family find themselves on the brink of obsolescence in his play Aristocrats. Their bedfast patriarch, once a prominent chief justice in Donegal, barks orders at the family through a baby monitor on the wall, while their beloved Ballybeg Hall succumbs to years of storms and dry rot.

Like many of his contemporaries, Friel wrote almost obsessively about small-town Irish families, usually motherless and living under the thumb of a tyrannical father and their roll call reads like a painstaking excavation of what Friel himself called "familiar melancholy."

But, while Tom Murphy, Hugh Leonard and John B Keane made efforts to write the family drama out of the rural Irish kitchen, Friel encases the O'Donnells in the old estate, allowing us to observe with him the inevitable decay of this once-revered institution.

Director Lyndsey Turner, something of a custodian of Friel's work, takes a minimalist, abstract approach to the Chekhovian drama, with the action set in a bare, sunken rectangle, aglow with soft blue light.

Ballybeg Hall in Es Devlin's design is represented in miniature —  a doll's house populated with tiny, immaculate furniture that particularly pleases the son of the family, who finds solace in the fabricated memories that he can hold in the palm of his hand.

There's a kind of matryoshka effect, with the wallpaper gradually peeling away to reveal a stunning vista of the mansion in its prime —  a  pastiche of stately elegance.

While the significance of Friel's more intriguing metaphors are lost in Turner's abstract approach to a genre that arguably relies on naturalism, the production is successful mostly thanks to the stellar cast.

David Dawson brings an elfin energy to Casimir, the young fantasist who flinches at the sound of his father's voice and who escapes "absorption" by inventing, and delighting in, a wife and two sons in Germany.

Aisling Loftus is compelling as the withdrawn but whimsical Claire, while Elaine Cassidy is determinedly picturesque as the drunken and jaded Alice. The most touching moment of the play is delivered by a dauntless Eileen Walsh, who resists our pity as she details the daily drudgery of caring for her terminally decrepit home and family.  

On the whole, this is a slow but steady descent into the delicate fairy tales and brutal realities of an aristocracy in crisis and it makes for a heady final hurrah before their inevitable exodus.

Runs until September 22, box office: donmarwarehouse.com

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