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A CurtainUp Review

Dolly West's Kitchen
By Lizzie Loveridge

….All nations welcome in this kitchen. Didn't I ask these two American boys to eat with us? And I'm glad I did, even if one seems to be deaf and dumb, and the other is definitely wearing lipstick. -- Rima

Madam , I am an American soldier. I am most emphatically not wearing lipstick. A little rouge, yes. … -- Marco

From the talented playwright Frank McGuinness we have this affectionate, new play, a celebration of a close knit Irish family. Acclaimed in his native Ireland, Dolly West's Kitchen comes to London with most of the cast intact from Dublin's Abbey Theatre. It tells the story of an Irish matriarch, Rima West and her three children, Dolly, Esther and Justin, and is set in County Donegal close to the border with Ulster, during the Second World War.

The family are not without their problems, Dolly (Donna Dent) now in her thirties, loves an Englishman she met at Trinity College, Dublin, Alec Redding (Steven Pacey). She has been in Italy running a restaurant for a number of years but Mussolini has brought her back home. Alec had a crisis in his twenties when he discovered his bisexuality, the reason he and Dolly went their separate ways. Dolly's highly strung elder sister, Esther is unhappily married to Ned Horgan (Simon O'Gorman), who is impotent. Justin (Michael Colgan) is unhappy and unfulfilled. Rima West, played by the magnificent Pauline Flanagan, knows where her children are having difficulties and introduces people she feels could help to the family.

The second half of the play sees most of the personal trauma, as the men return from the harrowing experience of war. Although the first half is funny, it too is not without tension. Justin attacks Alec as a representative of the British as the bitter feelings of Irish-British history come to the surface. This briefly puts Justin on the German side with director Patrick Mason's direction placing him in near darkness, his silhouetted Irish Army jodphurs and riding boots, recalling an officer of the Third Reich. Religion also enters into the picture with Ned cruelly reminding Anna, the illegitimate convent raised kitchen helper "I hope I haven't to remind you why you were reared in a convent in the first place? It was the only place who would take you in. Your mother didn't want you. Your father didn't want her."

The performances are first class. Pauline Flanagan's matriarch deserved her Samuel Beckett award for Best Actress in this play. She is funny and caring, never manipulative, as she gently provides opportunities for her family to grow. A particularly richly comic scene has her bringing two American GIs home from a bar, her tongue is loosed by whiskey as she lets rip with indiscretion. Donna Dent plays Dolly with a sense of sadness as she runs her kitchen calmly and efficiently. Perry Ojeda's Marco is a scene stealer, radiating charm as a camp GI. There is not a duff performance in the entire cast .

The long dining table dominates the set's traditional country kitchen, it is at the centre of family life. Lit from behind, large slatted blinds are used to alter the mood. To the fore and sides, the stage slopes at quite an angle. Well done to the two playing Jamie and Ned who fight without falling into the audience pit, which of course adds to the tension of the fight! Cries of the seagulls are replaced in the second half by the sound of shells and gunfire. Music enhances the mood of the play whether it is jazz, church choirs or the closing hymn sung as a duet to Holst's beautiful music, "I Vow to Thee, my Country.""

Frank McGuinness has given us is a play with a nostalgic feel for a time when families would sit around a table and talk to each other. This is an authentic family, with the West siblings behaving like real sisters and brother. Through this family we see the shocking impact of war. This essentially Irish play demonstrates a special Hibernian quality -- the famous welcome to strangers, the openness and ease of talking, and the craft of storytelling. It is, in my opinion every bit as good as The Weir.

Written by Frank McGuinness
Directed by Patrick Mason

With: Catherine Byrne, Harry Carnahan, Michael Colgan, Donna Dent, Pauline Flanagan, Lucianne McEvoy, Simon O'Gorman, Perry Laylon Ojeda, Steven Pacey
Design: Joe Vanek
Lighting Design: Nick Chelton
Sound Design: Dave Nolan for The Abbey
Running time: Two and a half hours with an interval
The Old Vic, The Cut, London SE1 (Waterloo station/underground)
Box Office: 020 7369 1722
Booking to July 15th 2000
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 17th May 2000 performance at The Old Vic, London.

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