The foggy auditorium gives the creeps even as one enters, thick air seeping throughout the audience and making the entire space one with the stage. As the lights go down, halting, flickering, eerie sounds starting to build and with only the vaguest hint of movement onstage, one can’t help but wonder; Is this the right play? Wasn’t this billed as a comedy?
The crescendo of this spine-tinglingly creepy introduction sees a beautifully grotesque creature emerging from the mists into the matching black and gold surrounds of her underground set, incongruously graceful and broken all at once. And as the screeching, viscerally affecting music swells, and the lights flicker some more, and the tension reaches its peak… Ah, yes. It is the right play.
We land with a bump. Our protagonist banters, in her gentle Cork lilt, drawing audience members into her narrative, ever so grateful for the company of us all for the duration of our stay. We help her forget her loneliness. She helps us forget that we’re watching a play.
Underneath tackles issues around the increasing importance placed on aesthetic beauty in every walk of life in the modern world. The shallow judgements we make, the deep pain an unintended slight can cause, the cruelty of a life half lived in the shadows. Pat Kinevane is known for writing exceptional works focused on those who live around the fringes of society; the forgotten, the broken, the maligned. Here is a character who tells her tale from the crypt, embellished and emblazoned with Egyptian symbolism and punctuated with the bizarre, the story bouncing one way then the other, but always captivating.
She speaks with the confidence of the dead. There is nothing holding back her honesty, nothing for her to fear here in the afterlife, in direct contrast to her difficult and painful existence in the flesh. And each time another booming crash or mysterious, scrabbling sound effect unsettles her adoring audience, she reassures, explaining the intricacies of life after death; it’s ok, it’s not as scary as it seems. Few people in her own lifetime did the same for her, it transpires.
Weaving the sublime and the ridiculous, the exotic and the banal, the romantic and the crude and all kinds of delicate subtleties in between, our blackened heroine tells her story. She is easily distracted, jumps from one thread to another, with the ingenious inclusion of a parody Home In The Sun episode cropping up time and again. Just as your best friend might keep cracking the same joke repeatedly just because it tickles you, she adopts the caricatured personas of the two house-hunters, bringing them back to life now and then to add a touch of the absurd to proceedings.
But for all the absurdity and surrealism, sensual trickery and spectacular play with lighting and props (the gold sheets and woven crown, shimmering half-knitted long scarf and the gold-leaf magazine are employed to stunning effect throughout) there is something essential, natural and honest about the tale and its telling. From the peaks of hilarity to the troughs of empathy as she suffers, and right back to a trivial pun that is a friendly suckerpunch while tears still prick your eyes, we journey with our new friend right to the end.
Where she offers us the simplest advice.
“Go now, and live.”
Start by going now and watching this play.
It is astonishing, enrapturing, emotive and powerful. It is hilarious, life-affirming, eye-opening and sharp.