Photographer: Johannes Hjorth, Publicity Designer: Ed Bankes

Pembroke New Cellars can be a challenging space to work in, not least when working with a cast of eleven in a largely naturalistic production with ambitious set and tech. However, this is what Myles O’Gorman delivers with his production of Sean O’Casey’s heart-rending The Plough and the Stars about the inhabitants of a tenement in Dublin during the violence of the Easter Rising in 1916. The set in Act One is thoroughly detailed, complete with whisky decanter, crucifix and lace tablecloth, and a ‘wall’ cleverly constructed from washing lines and laundry, the cosy domesticity of which slowly degenerates into bare wooden boxes beneath a shattered window.

“Beautifully unnerving”

Praise must be given to the Irish accents that the whole cast manage, as well as the sense of boisterous community always verging on dissension created by the energy of so many actors in such a small space. Annabel Bolton, in the role of motherly charwoman Mrs Gogan, enters with an endearing animation that she maintains throughout, until the warfare outside finally reduces even her to tears, a moment at which the spirit of the community appears to be truly broken. Equally animated is Ed Paget, excellent as ‘the Young Covey’, instilling the fervent socialist with a mischievous charm and youthful vitality, and providing a frequent source of antagonism for Henry Phillips’ irritable Peter Flynn and Joe Tyler Todd’s Fluther Good. The sight of Paget, Flynn and Todd playing cards at the foot of a coffin later in the play is a poignant counterpoint. Against such appealingly energetic characters, Ellie Gaunt’s soft-spoken Nora Clitheroe seems a little colourless during Act One, but this is understandable considering the solemnity of her character, and her performance in the play’s second half, involving heart-breaking sobs and the mental instability of losing everything she holds dear, is certainly moving. Grainne Dromgoole’s Captain Brennan combines a barking voice of encouragement with a pitying awareness of the slaughter, while Freya Ingram gives an affecting performance as an upper-class woman caught in the fighting.

“It delivers the emotional punch it promises with no holding back”

The chorus vocal work in the second half is beautifully unnerving, with percussive chanting during scene transitions and cries of ‘ambulance’ and ‘Red Cross’ from around the space indicating casualties on the street outside. The jovial shepherding of the audience into the foyer during the interval to change the set into the round does not seem entirely necessary, breaking the tragic trance of the play a little too much to warrant the effect of the new playing space. But the tragedy is certainly picked up again afterwards, ending with a harrowing red-lit scene of two nameless English soldiers drinking tea and singing while one of the tenement’s inhabitants lies dead on the floor.

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This is an inventive and deeply haunting rendition of O’Casey’s play. It’s not an easy one to watch, but it delivers the emotional punch it promises with no holding back, enough to stay with you long after the last notes of ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’

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