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The Theatreguide.London Review

Greta Garbo Came To Donegal
Tricycle Theatre      January-February 2010

The reclusive star is indeed imagined to have visited Ireland in 1967 in Frank McGuinness's new play, calling on a painter friend who has bought a house from a local family, keeping them on as staff.

The play is really about that family, Garbo's appearance just highlighting and partly instigating dramas already waiting to be played out.

Husband and wife, disappointed in each other and in themselves, are constantly bickering, the husband's spinster sister is the strong family backbone just because somebody has to be, and the teen daughter has hopes of going to university to study medicine, an ambition her parents can't help feeling is a matter of dreaming above her station.

The notoriously self-centred and unsympathetic Garbo finds herself drawn into these people's lives, though always with the escape clause of being able to move on and forget them whenever she chooses.

Her involvement ultimately provides more help than harm, though one can't help feeling - and it may be one of the play's points - that things would probably have worked out much the same without her.

It has become a cliché to compare McGuinness to Chekhov, but as usual his interest is less in any big dramatic events than in uncovering the small stories hidden within the lives of little people.

And so the quiet revelation, for instance, that each of the adults in the family had tried to enter the larger world (i.e. get a job in England) and failed gives colour to both their unhappiness and their ambivalence about the girl's ambition.

The play is full of quiet insights like that, that carry much of its emotional weight.

Actually, there may be a few too many character insights and complexities for us to keep up with - there are suggestions both of a sexual attraction between Garbo and the spinster and of a secret relationship between the spinster and the gay artist, while the will-she-won't-she about the daughter's dreams has one or two too many re-reversals.

And things are frequently punctuated by the cry of a peacock who is evidently a symbol of the calling-attention-to-oneself that the human characters all, for different reasons, reject, but that symbol and theme are really as peripheral as the offstage bird.

Still, keep your eye on the little dramas instead of waiting for a big one, and the play can be very involving and satisfying.

Caroline Lagerfelt gives Garbo the right quality of veiled unknowability while also making her grudging sympathy and interest in the others believable, and Lisa Diveney captures the anguish of the youngster facing the loss of her dreams.

But the play belongs to Michelle Fairley as the sister-aunt, forced to accept the assigned role of the strong one in the family, and perhaps not fully aware that she has the strength to carry it off.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Greta Garbo Came To Donegal - Tricycle Theatre 2010


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