Directed by Paul Meade
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“Miss Madeleine, be free, courageous, be beautiful and be the best swan in the pond. And Johnno Boyle O’Connor will be entirely yours.” (The swan on the pond to Madeline)
If the world we are born into and expected to flourish in fails us, we sometimes need an alternate place to inhabit where we can find nurture and acceptance, and surcease from our emotional and spiritual pain. Madeleine’s world in Froam fails her miserably and she creates an alternative universe and a persona that rescue her from the dreariness and falsehood of her mundane life. She dons new raven black shoes to woo her intended beau Johnno Boyle O’Connor and fantasizes killing his “long armed girlfriend.” Madeleine fuels her imagination with frequent visits to “Mrs. Green’s second hand shop [where she] collects all sorts, teacups and matching saucers, small figurines of animals getting in and out of little shoes or maybe a framed display of rare and exotic moths.” It is at Mrs. Green’s that she also finds the workout video that assists Madeleine in her quest to be “proud, brave, and beautiful.”
Fantasy and reality clash with splendid results in Genevieve Hulme-Beaman’s extraordinary “Pondling” currently running at 59E59 Theaters as part of the 2015 1st Irish Theatre Festival. The audience enters the dark and often disturbing fantasy world of Madeleine the young girl routinely excluded from the nightly “long conversations about poetry and killing animals” by her cattle farmer grandfather and her brother who gave her busy work to “distract her from her uselessness.” The men “couldn’t kill anything, they just liked to ‘talk the talk.’” Madeleine, on the other hand, can “capture and kill the stray cat that scared the chickens at night” and “pull the head off a chicken” so her friend Katie can be assured the chicken’s body “could still run around afterwards.” Madeleine also learns the magical powers of tansy ragwort (will not spoil that scene!). This is one brave young woman.
Hints of Madeleine’s age permeate Ms. Hulme-Beaman’s brilliantly written short play (listen for comments about her hair and her preferred mode of transportation) for which she won the Best Actress Award at the 2013 Dublin Fringe. But whatever Madeleine’s chronological age, it is light years away from the age of her vivid and irrepressible imagination and her obsessive and sometimes delusional longing for Johnno Boyle O’Connor.
It is not just the creation of fantasy that sustains Madeleine. She lives in a world of magical realism where swans engage her in conversation and ponds become tropes for alternate and parallel universes where “inside her little round head is something else, something very beautiful. A beautiful French swan girl by the name of Madeleine Humble Butter Cup.” Magical realism is a fragile genre of writing and playwrights often shy away from its charms and the danger of “destroying the lines of demarcation that separates what seems real from what seems fantastic” (Gabriel Garcia Marquez). Ms. Hulme-Beaman understands those lines completely and navigates the realm of magical realism with impressive skill.
Madeleine’s visit to Anne Marie Coleman’s majestic home (with an en suite bathroom) in search of a surrogate mother and her singing “If You Love Me” (Edith Piaf’s “Hymne à l’amour”) are two of many scenes in “Pondling” that exemplify Madeleine’s deep sadness and longing for acceptance. In these scenes – as well as in others – Ms. Hulme-Beaman displays her craft at writing with rich imagery and refreshing figurative language as well as her treasure trove of sparkling tropes.
What makes “Pondling” so delightful – in addition to its thoughtful and intelligent appeal – is the remarkable writing and performance craft of Genevieve Hulme-Beaman. From the first sentence the audience hears and the first movement the audience sees, one is fully aware that something spectacular is about to happen on stage. Under Paul Meade’s exquisite and detailed direction, Ms. Hulme-Beaman has the ability to transform the space she inhabits on stage to a world of fantasy and imagination that draws the audience in Madeleine’s world of longing and deep and abiding sadness, sadness that might only have one opportunity for resolution. See this remarkable play and decide what that choice might or might not have been.