Theatrical: ‘The Unmanageable Sisters’ at the Abbey

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Last December I went on a theatrical spending spree, purchasing early bird, preview tickets for a range of shows in the Abbey Theatre during 2019. My Christmas bonus went to a good cause. Priced at about ten euros these purchases are completely risk free. Even if the play is disappointing then the outlay will have been minuscule, and you’ll have seen a show. One of my December purchases was for ‘The Unmanageable Sisters’ on the Abbey main stage. One of my companions last night was my own sister. It seemed appropriate, although I would never accuse her being unmanageable.

The play is an adaptation of the 1968 play ‘Les belles soeurs’ by French-Canadian playwright Michel Tremblay. That play told the tale of a group of working class women living in a tower block in Montreal, as they struggle under the weight of catholic dogma and economic struggle.

This adaptation (which was first staged last year at the Abbey) by Deirdre Kinehan moves the action to the Ballymun flats in 1974. In the kitchen of Ger Lawless (Marion O’Dwyer), she is celebrating her win of one million Green Shield stamps (a sales promotion scheme that rewarded shoppers with stamps that could be used to buy gifts from a catalogue or from an affiliated retailer.). She has invited her neighbours and sisters around for the evening, where they will affix the stamps to the Green Shield books. She argues with her daughter Linda (Clare Monnelly) who has plans to go to the pictures that evening.

Her ambitions with her win might seem modest – a non-stick frying pan; nylon curtains; glasses with palm trees on the design – but as the women convene in her kitchen it becomes apparent that these are women of very constrained circumstances – their status severely limited by the lack of opportunity for working class women in the 1970s. Sentenced to  life as a housewife, the idea of an education or a career is alien to them. They live lives of routine drudgery, birthing more babies than they can afford. Woe betide them if they become a fallen woman.

There is no sisterhood among these women. They are suffocated by circumstance, and show no compassion to anyone who dares to have notions above her station (one of Linda’s friends is going to university to their horror). In fact they are not exactly thrilled at the good fortune that has fallen on Ger. Linda’s other friend Lisa (Caoimhe O’Malley) is horrified to find herself pregnant by her married boyfriend as she asks Linda’s Auntie Patsy (Lisa Lambe) for advice about ‘taking the boat to England’. Patsy is a fallen woman because of her job in a nightclub. The women regard her as a whore.

Several of the fifteen women get a monologue to explain her situation and frustration.  Their rage at the hopelessness of their lives comes into sharpest relief by Rose O’Brien (Karen Ardiff). She spits venom towards those uppity young women’s libbers, declaring that girls who are raped outside the home are asking for it. Her own home life is one of horror however.  The ensemble cast is spectacular as a whole but the highlight of the show for me was Karen Ardiff as Rose. I may be so bold to say that Ardiff is my favourite stage actor working today. I saw her in ‘Dublin will show you how’ earlier this year at the Complex, and last year in ‘Rathmines Road’ (also by Deirdre Kinahan) and was deeply impressed with her versatility and talent. She is outstanding in ‘The unmanageable sisters’.

While the undercurrents may be dark and bleak, this play is a comedy. The sisters’ stories may be stark, but the play is directed (by Graham McLaren) with an emphasis on seeing the humour of their situation (the dance number by the entire cast where they extol the virtues of Bingo (‘We fucking love Bingo’) is hilarious.

Running until August 3rd, you have no excuse not to see this show. Book your tickets now.

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