The Market Place Theatre, Armagh (29 July 2015); Lyric Theatre, Belfast (29 Sept- 3 Oct 2015), and on tour
One of the highlights of the John Hewitt International Summer School, 27-31 July 2015, was without question the Wednesday night showing of Brenda Murphy’s ‘Two Sore Legs’, not least as it represented the first play to be critiqued for this blog in almost three months, following a quiet period for local theatre. For this reviewer, it proved to be an impressive re-introduction.
Based on the life of the playwright’s mother Bridie, ‘Two Sore Legs’ sees recently-deceased Bridget rise from the dead to reveal her life story to the audience, from her upbringing in 1950s Belfast, to her fateful first meeting with charming married man Liam, to her escape to Butlins in Wales, to bringing up a succession of children and facing family tragedy amidst social scorn and the advent of the Troubles. Over the course of the play, we find ourselves let into every facet of this remarkable woman’s life.
The last time we saw Maria Connolly was in Tinderbox and the MAC’s ‘Lally the Scut’, an epic production with a cast of twelve. The contrast here could not be more striking. The sole performer on stage, Connolly carried the entire world of the play, introducing us to a host of supporting characters in Bridget’s colourful life, none of whom we ever see, and yet, by the end, all of whom we felt we’d met. This, undoubtedly, is thanks to the superb combination of Murphy’s writing and Connolly’s acting, the latter billed, without exaggeration, as a tour de force. The two were so inter-linked here that they simply have to be critiqued together.
Albeit drawing on her own family history, Murphy is telling the story of an entire life, spanning decades, something that would be no small feat to convey in prose or on screen, never mind the confines of a one-woman play. Yet the writing is so sharp, so tight, so economical and infused with heart and relatability, that we were swept along as though seeing it all unfold before our eyes. The imagery conjured was so vivid, the histories revealed so poignant and emotional, the local witticisms so knowing and humorous, that we felt we’d lived this character’s life, from birth to death, in the space of an evening. No small part of this was due to Connolly’s outstanding ability to shift into different voices over the course of her performance, bringing to life Bridget’s surly, drunken father, her slippery, but swoon-worthy married lover, her spiteful abusers in the street after she gives birth, and, in lovely, subtler touches, her calm, supportive mother, and the pompous, often out-of-his depth parish priest. All the while, she weaved these voices in amongst the character’s own, a larger-than-life, majestic, unapologetic titan of a woman, not free of heartbreaking vulnerabilities (the loss of the characters’ parents and one of her brothers proving to be genuinely moving moments), yet capable of utter hilarity, too, the ‘sore legs’ joke of the title raising genuine laughs, while an early scene of Bridget pre-empting her own passing in a funeral directors’ while dragging her granddaughter along proved a key highlight of the show. Murphy’s writing and Connolly’s performance eventually combined for two searing moments, both brought to life clearer than on any cinema screen: Liam’s funeral, watched from afar in the rain, the character making a private, quietly heartbroken goodbye, and the death of one of her children, the pain of which was brought to life in an electrifying piece of writing reflecting on the fact that, with the dead child one half of a set of twins, Bridget didn’t need to wonder what her daughter would look like as she got older, combined with Connolly breaking down on stage to create the play’s most powerful moment.
Although the writing and acting were the lifeblood here, Martin Lynch’s direction saw some superb choices complement the two women’s genius. Right from the start, we were confronted with Bridget’s coffin to right of stage, the character, by her own admission, speaking to us from beyond. On one level, then, as Connolly strode around the stage imparting Bridget’s life and dramas to the audience, the spectre of death hung over everything, the physical reminder of its inevitability there for all to see. And yet, some time into the show, Connolly removed the iconic fur coat that had dominated her profile for most of the action, and flung it over the coffin for the remainder, simultaneously achieving three things: leaving the character more visually vulnerable with the loss of a major part of her physical frame, leaving her more sensual as she imparted the ups and downs of her love life, and defying death as a defining force in her life, even as it claimed much of her family. Only in hindsight did the power of that directorial choice truly hit home, but then this is a play that leaves the viewer thinking- the story, at once everyday and epic, staying with them long after the final bow from Connolly.