By Laura Lynott
AN honest snapshot of how Irish women were imprisoned by poverty, the patriarchy and Catholicism wouldn’t normally be something you’d expect to amuse, yet somehow The Unmanageable Sisters allows us to laugh at our own tragedy while momentarily weeping at the reflection of ourselves.
Perhaps men won’t understand this play – perhaps this is a woman’s piece and one she should watch with her mother, daughter, sister and female friends.
But it would be compelling to assume some men at least could learn something from Deirdre Kinahan’s version of Les Belles-souers, Michel Tremblay’s 1968 play about a working class woman who discovers that winning a jackpot can be far from the blessing she envisioned.
The Unmanageable Sisters, currently being staged at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, is based in 1970s Ballymun during a time when younger women are beginning to search for emancipation while their mothers and older females, are still dominated by the teachings of the Church, constrained by large families and poverty.
The opening scene would give the impression this is a light entertainment offering, as Linda Lawless (Clare Monnelly) sashays across the stage to ‘I’m in the Mood for Dancing’ by the Nolans but the story soon takes a dark turn, when Linda’s mother, Ger Lawless (Marion O’Dwyer) realises she can no longer trust her own friends and family.
Ger’s joy and self-obsession when she wins a million Green Shield stamps is torn asunder when the women she’s invited to help her with her stamp win, little-by-little turn on her, stealing the stamps.
During the evening, Ger guides a masterclass in stamp sticking, as she leads the gossip machine but she doesn’t realise jealousy, sparked by one of the women, who begins to snatch books of stamps, will feed into the rest of the group.
While Ger boasts about transforming her poverty-stricken flat into a new home with the million stamps she’s won and all the goods she’ll be able to swap them for, the women realise they too are poor and resent her luck.
The gossip reaches a crescendo and the hidden tragedy of the women of this time is illustrated by a particularly moving monologue from Rose O’Brien (Karen Ardiff) – a judgmental older woman with wounds from her own past.
While we hear echoes of a fight yet to be won by Irish women within the voices of the young female characters. There’s a crisis pregnancy, talk of planning a trip to England for an abortion. The plotting of an escape from poverty, fear and social isolation.
And there’s the bitterness of the seeds of judgment and paranoia sewed by an all encompassing Church, laying root within communities and even families. Liberated women Patsy Guerin (Lisa Lambe) are cast out. She is another actress, who offers an exceptional and evocative monologue.
Such is the stigma attached to Patsy due to the brainwashing of her sister, that Ger fails to see she’s her only faithful companion in the end when she realises the deception of the others.
The Unmanageable Sisters is a masterclass in theatre – switching seamlessly from comedy to harrowing drama. And perhaps it is only women who can relate to this raw heartbreak and determination. I was reminded of women I’d known and know today, as I looked forward to a time when such plays will be historic pieces, that no longer reflect sections of society still.
Well done to all involved in this play – the acting is sensational, the script witty, well-timed and dramatic in all the right places. And the costumes and set are charming and instill a sense of reality of the time. This is a triumph for the Abbey.
The show is on stage until April 7 and tickets are available here