Review: Pig Girl, Finborough

“Turn your head and you’ll see me”

Colleen Murphy’s Armstrong’s War remains one of the best new plays I’ve seen in recent years and that it hasn’t returned to these shores since its initial Sunday/Monday run at the Finborough in 2013 is an absolute travesty. In the meantime, we do now have the opportunity to see another of Murphy’s plays – 2012’s Pig Girl – which comes freighted with a different sense of expectation, as its premiere in Edmonton, Alberta was mired in controversy and sparked fervent protests at its perceived cultural appropriation. (An excellent précis can be read here.)

The play was inspired by a horrifically true story of a Canadian pig farmer and serial killer who was convicted of six murders but implicated in dozens more – his preferred victim being sex workers of aboriginal descent, a section of society too easily ignored and neglected, allowing him to literally get away with murder. Murphy depersonalises her story though, elevating it to near-mythical status in order to give a voice to the thousands of women, so many of them nameless, whose lives have been impacted by senseless violence. Continue reading “Review: Pig Girl, Finborough”

Review: Armstrong’s War, Finborough

“I wanted something to be true but it wasn’t”

In the rehab unit of St Vincent’s Hospital, 21 year old Canadian soldier Michael Armstrong is back home recovering from his war wounds after a IED blast in Afghanistan. But though his physical wounds are healing, there’s more than a hint of post traumatic stress disorder about the young man as he seems happiest hiding away under his bed and chatting with the imaginary presence of his friend and comrade Robbie. A half-forgotten decision to let a girl guide read to him to earn a Community Service merit badge rouses him out of his stupor as it turns out his particular helper wheelchair-bound Halley, is a fearsome whirlwind of good intentions and over the six weekly visits it takes her to get the award, the pair find themselves connected in ways they could never have imagined.

Colleen Murphy’s new play Armstrong’s War may be having a criminally short run at the Finborough before its official premiere in Canada later this year, but this production touched me like hardly any other play I’ve seen recently and left me confident it is one of the better pieces of theatre I have seen all year. The way in which this unlikely pair develop such an intense relationship is extraordinarily done over 90 short minutes, the depth of the emotion it provokes is devastatingly honest and true, the performances under Jennifer Bakst’s direction unflinchingly raw and exposed, all combining to create the kind of theatre that lingers long in the mind. Continue reading “Review: Armstrong’s War, Finborough”

Review: The December Man/L’homme de Décembre, Finborough

“Ordinary people aren’t expected to be heroes”

There are mini-seasons within seasons now at the Finborough and so the three Sunday/Monday slots of the women playwrights programme, In Their Place, are being used to introduce the work of Canadian writer Colleen Murphy: the first of these is The December Man or L’homme de Décembre. Wanting to commemorate the horrifically tragic events of a massacre at the École Polytechnique in Montréal on December 6, 1989 where a gunman killed fourteen women for being ‘feminists’ but not be guilty of exploiting it, Murphy shifts her focus onto what might have happened to those that survived the attack and the ongoing consequences it has on their lives.

The play centres on the Fournier family: Jean, a man ordered out of the room before the massacre began and his working-class parents, Benoît and Kathleen, who struggle to deal with their son’s survivor guilt and the destructive impact it is having on his psyche and on the family as a whole as well. And to further deflect attention from the event itself, the story is told in reverse chronology, starting with shocking events in March 1992 and working backwards to 1989 to reveal just how we’ve arrived at these final actions.

Powerfully persuasive performances from all three actors means that this is never a dull evening, but choosing this format means that any sense of mystery about why things have happened is resolved by about the third scene and so from then on we know the whole story of what is going to happen, in reverse of course, but even then, there are scenes which seemed to do little but further establish the mood rather than revealing anything. Where the problem really lies is in not delving deep enough into the psychological motivations of the characters to give us at least some clue of why they are driven to such extremes. Keeping the actual events at L’École Polytechnique at arms length promises a universality of experience which is somewhat undone by the unexplained responses here.

Matthew Hendrickson’s grizzled father, weighted down by a lifetime of frustration yet fiercely proud of his son and Linda Broughton’s suffocatingly well-intentioned mother, clinging onto childhood memories of her family, both did excellent work, pulling us in straightaway with the hardest of opening scenes but also playing the lighter side of the family dynamic well too, bursting with pride at their first university-going relation. And Michael Benz also impressed as the introverted Jean, emotionally damaged by his inaction and the subsequent inability to deal with the fallout whilst sequestered in his tightly repressed family unit, although never given the opportunity to really explore why he is so particularly affected, likewise with the later decisions of his parents, we’re never really shown what drives them to such lengths.

One can see why Murphy has made the choices she has, in pulling back the lens to show how the effects of tragedies can ripple out far beyond the initial impact but in making it such a specific response to a specific event, the universality never really rings true. Part of it also comes back to the fact that she can afford to play fast and loose with the connections to the Montréal massacre because of the emotional resonance that association has with a Canadian audience, an analogous example would be a British play circling the Dunblane tragedy which would be sadly meaningless to other nationalities as we all have our own tragedies in this world. That said, it is very well-acted with some really moving moments within, and forms the first part of what I am sure will be an interesting journey through this playwright’s work over the next few months.

Running time: 80 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £2
Booking until 21st March

Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews