The third play in Sheffield Theatre’s admirable Brian Friel season is probably the least engaging and most opaque.
Three middle-aged couples converge in a pier in a remote Donegal harbour to celebrate one of their number’s birthday and to wait for a boat to take them to a nearby island to spend the night.
The boatman never turns up, and the group spend the duration of the performance marooned in each other’s company on the pier, telling stories, singing songs and talking about their lives.
What follows is a confusing fusion of a state-of-the-nation piece about Ireland circa 1990 (when Friel wrote the play) with an examination of the nature of human relationships: people living their lives in quiet desperation masking their unhappiness with forced jollity and strained bravado.
Beneath the surface tensions bubble as each character faces their own personal tragedy – bookmaker Terry (Dermot Kerrigan) is having an affair with his sister-in-law Angela (Andrea Irvine), his wife Berna (Cathy Belton) with her bright, false smile, is being treated for depression, Frank (Jean-Paul Van Cauwelaert) is a failed writer, while accordion player George (Luke Carver Goss) – barely able to speak – has only months to live, as wife Trish (Melanie McHugh) keeps up a brave public face.
There is talk of apparitions, epiphanies and ritual killings but under Paul Miller’s direction, Friel’s point and purpose remains as foggy as the mist-shrouded island of Terry’s imagination. None of the characters are sufficiently interesting or believable to make us care about them or their struggles, and it’s a long two hours in their company.
Designer Simon Daw’s stunning harbour set complete with the sounds of seagulls and lapping waves is an impressive centre-piece.