Sebastian Barry's quietly insightful play about Irish-dancer-with-a-lust-for-life Lizzie Finn meanders along without much to sink your teeth into, but the result is still charmingly endearing, full of recognisable situations and a pleasing idealism that belies the more stolid plot. This is a play in need of a purpose, but sits well for the while.
Lizzie Finn is a 'famous' dancer - at least, well known enough in her local Weston-super-Mare that when Robert Gibson, who she casually flirted with on the seafront, attempts to cover her legs and 'protect her modesty', he is very nearly hounded out of town. From these unlikely beginnings a quick marriage comes, and Lizzie joins Robert to return to his local County Kerry, and he turns out to be the last living son of the most prosperous family in the county. However, Robert's terrible experiences during the Second Boer War and his actions in light of the wanton death perpetrated by the British make him a social pariah and threaten to derail the new life they are building, as does the closeted town's perception of the vibrant Lizzie.
Staged as a collection of short snippets from the lives of Lizzie and Robert, the play never really 'takes off' so much as bumbles along in a very natural vein. There are no huge conflicts and few heavy scenes of grim import: most of the central argument seems to stem from people's perception of Lizzie in light of her chosen career, and her refusal to be ashamed for her choices. Although, to be honest, even that seems less of a conflict and more of an annoyance - Robert's mother is generally slightly disdainful of Lizzie, but that never spills over into anything active. Similarly, the local glitterati's reaction to her is a little snooty, but there's little peril of any sort beyond a little social shuffling.
The plot seems to really get going when it is revealed that Robert switched sides during the recent Boer war, which really alienates the family and causes his mother to act rashly, but even that is played in a positive light - it serves as Lizzie and Robert's impetus to leave a place that has never truly accepted them - despite the individual tragedy of the moment. As such, there's a gentle theme of ignoring social norms, but each moment is resolved with such ease that there's no space for any emotional grit whatsoever. The slightly more shocking moment near the end comes out of nowhere, and its lack of impact means that there's little punch to this saga at all.
However, that's really the only criticism that can be levelled at Jagged Fence's UK premiere of this piece. Blanche McIntyre's direction retains the gentle simplicity of the piece by book-ending each scene with gentle Irish folk music and setting the piece in front of a water feature teeming with floating candles - everything's very elegiac and flowing, and there is a sense that recounting Lizzie's 'only true history' is not so much a question of differing sources but that it's just so very normal - a slice of early 20th-century life. The conflict between Lizzie and Robert - representing liberal congeniality and identity on the one hand, and the more cloistered parsimony of the town on the other - is one that defined that century (and arguably still defines us today), and there is a quiet sense of echo, reflected in the flickering candles around the stage and the ripples in the pool of water.
Sebastian Barry also has a strong sense of poetry - while none of the characters can be noted for their loquacity, they seem to all occasionally utter a line that takes you by surprise with its tartness and poignancy. They do feel somewhat placed - you do doubt some of them would have the wherewithall to come out with such statements - but they do add some spice to moments where it does (occasionally) sag.
It's all very pretty, unforced and still - a little hard to feel completely engaged and enraptured by, but still plenty watchable. It's lacking the tension that would make it truly enjoyable, but it's otherwise a pleasant play and a great production.