Forever Yours Mary-Lou- Ustinov Studio ***

The Ustinov, plonked right in the middle of Bath, whose summer season includes a Rattigan, a Coward and A Midsummer Nights Dream, has always feels like an oddity in this most genteel of cities. It is a theatre that under Laurence Boswell has created adventurous ‘themed’ seasons and in recent times has brought us work from modern America, 19th century boulevard Parisian comedy and now a season of French Canadian work that started off with the barmy, sexy new(ish) work Right Now and now concludes with a modern classic of Quebecian theatre Michel Tremblay’s Forever Yours, Mary-Lou (Á Toi, Pour Tojours, Ta Marie-Lou). In this austere production it only partially succeeds in revealing its strengths.

Ten years on from a tragic family accident two sisters reunite. Carmen is a country and Western singer, her garish attire as cheap as the nightclub she performs in. Her sister Mandy, is devout and stifled, repressed by her memories of what happened one fateful day in 1961. It soon becomes clear these sisters have vastly different memories of what happened that day as breakfast discontent between the parents escalates and soon plunges into hell.

Michael West’ s translation transports the originals Quebecois  vernacular to an Irish tongue and an Irish Catholic bent, and contains echoes of Beckett in its short, sparse, poetical yet grounded dialogue facilitated by Boswell’s decision to stage it with the four actors sitting on chairs, facing out front. It is a visual nudge that this is a family that can’t connect to each other, caught up in their own version of events, each as blinkered as a car headlight in their own responses to what is going on around them. The sisters are flanked  The sympathy it generates in its audience shifts throughout, at one moment we are on the side of Caitriona Ni Mhurchu’s Mary-Lou and her tale of an abusive marriage before Paul Loughran’s husband paints a different tale. It touches on a number of tough subjects, marital rape, murder, suicide but we are never fully sure what the truth is. Like life, its full of half-truths and situations

It’s sex that is on the mind of all these characters, from the husband who is drowning in the depths of his desperation to a wife who is clearly repulsed by the act and her drunken, slobbering husband who she accuses of forcing himself upon her to conceive their children. It translates to the children, Caiolfhionn Dunne’s Carmen is a modern women, able to choose a life of liberated dalliances but her sister Amy McAllister’s Mandy is as horrified by the idea of sex as her mother.

It is well performed by the foursome who manage to create relationships between each other without the usual physical interactions to help them but it engages the mind more than it engages the heart. What could be a devastating account of a family falling apart, akin to the great family dramas of the 20th century, never plunges into emotional catharsis. At seventy minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome but it is a challenge for its audience trapping its audience in its claustrophobic atmosphere and only letting up at the end as a door opens and one of the characters walks out of the stifling family atmosphere forever.

It’s a play that leaves a more lasting impression, its ideas stewing and percolating a couple of days on from seeing it. It’s an interesting rather than thrilling evening but like everything at this thriving theatre well worth a view.

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