Plenty opens with a sprawled, flagrant, brazenly naked Andrew Dickinson, arm flung out in defiance and blood trailed marvelously across his body. ‘How theatrical,’ you might think – and you wouldn’t be wrong. The ‘staginess’, however, feels less a blatant vie for attention (although that was no doubt in director Luke Howarth’s mind), and more a counterpoint on which the rest of the play rotates – a moment of vulnerability and exposure that underpins our interaction with the remainder of the work. Like much of the play, it becomes meaningful when viewed through the lens of recollection.
Plenty is all about artifice. 1950s banality jostles against the artificial emotional high of the war, bourgeois decadence and conventionality that warps and reflects supposed love. Characters display themselves in ‘honest’ monologue until we feel they never can be quite naked. Gráinne O’Mahony, as the lead, manages to strike the perfect note in this stilted landscape, giving a remarkable performance of Susan’s descent into madness as she distills the move from poignant naivety to ultimate desperation. Her performance is cogent, haunting, forcefully charged; it is a brilliant depiction of the ultimate search for meaning.
Aoife Cantrill, as Susan’s debauched sidekick, is almost equally impressive in her portrayal of a troubled, blasé new bourgeoisie. She conveys the moving but inherently flawed love of a mutable best friend. Cantrill heads an overall highly impressive supporting cast, with Andrew Dickinson and Archie Thomson bringing acutely sensitive portrayals of Susan’s doomed love interests. However, it feels at times that Dickinson is overwhelmed by the tour-de-forces of Aoife and Grainne. Highly intelligent comic performances from George Varley and Shrai Popat were also memorable for impeccable timing and how they lifted the work’s otherwise somber mood to give moments of some poignant light relief.
These intimate portrayals, however, would be devoid of much of their emotional potency without the play’s set design. We moved easily between the conventionality of a living room, the brutalized fields of war-torn France and a seedy hotel room, as the designers monopolized the Keble O’Reilly space to maximize dramatic effect. One particularly sensitive detail lies in the transition into an otherwise unused part of the stage when Susan is reunited with her one ‘true’ love, a soldier from the war who she knew only for a night. The move subtly juxtaposes the forced artificiality of the living room and its characters with the poignancy of an anonymous bedroom, tacitly enhancing the work’s intricacies in a way that could have easily been overwrought.
Howarth’s production invigorates this world of barren hope and emotion, bringing freshness to the surprisingly relevant tensions of the post-war period. And if that isn’t enough, it is, quite simply, worth watching for the cast.