In my experience at least, the Irish have an endearing and infectious sense of fun, and an almost unrivalled relish for good times. And Jacqueline McCarrick's award-winning play 'The Mushroom Pickers' seems to support my view. But in spite of the humour and banter that permeates this play, there's an undercurrent of tension and fear reflecting the life-wrecking 'troubles' which have dominated the socio-political scene in Ireland for more years than any of us would prefer to remember. In the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement, McCarrick's play describes a small community which is still confused, haunted by its past, and fearful of the future. If this play has a statement to make, it's that the lives of ordinary people are not resolved at a stroke by the manoeuvrings of politicians.
Set in the border 'bandit' country of Co. Monaghan, 'The Mushroom Pickers' focuses on Laura, who's left a successful acting career in London because her life has unexpectedly changed course. A self-confessed 'square peg in a round hole', she's returned to the home of her childhood and is clearly searching for something.
Laura finds a temporary job picking mushrooms in a local farm owned by the intense and unnerving Frank, who not only 'lives and breathes mushrooms' but is ominously described by the other characters as 'The Grim Reaper'. Laura is nevertheless drawn to this man, who has a sensitive and intellectual aspect to his outwardly rough and aggressive persona. Urged by Frank to seek a life elsewhere, it's not until Laura faces a shocking emotional crisis that she realises she won't find what she's looking for in her home town.
Catherine Cusack's petite Laura is made of sterner stuff than her stature would seem to indicate. It's a forthright and commendable portrayal of a woman who can stand up for herself and deal with what life throws her way. Cusack's characterisation is a finely balanced counterpoint to John Kirk's brooding, guilt-ridden Frank, who one can't help feeling is as much a victim of the troubles as those who lost loved ones in bombings or through ruthless murders.
Michael Culkin as Laura's father and Caroline John as his 'girlfriend' Nancy, both turn in engaging and humorous performances, and there's good support from Sam Kenyon as Frank's brother, Tom, who has strange obsessions with religious statues and Errol Flynn. And David Rolston provides some 'angelic' vocal accompaniment as mushroom picker Owen.
Ably directed by Svetlana Dimcovic, 'The Mushroom Pickers' is a thoughtful and thought provoking piece, which, thanks to well-defined characters, holds attention, and in spite of the disquieting nature of the subject matter, also entertains. But Laura's crisis near the end of the play seemed jarringly sudden - a true 'bolt out of the blue' - and didn't seem to fit, even given the unpredictability of the context. At the same time, the symbolism of the mushroom in Laura's crisis also seemed oddly and unnecessarily obvious, bordering on the contrived. However, that didn't seem to spoil the audience's appreciation of the play or the playing, and it didn't spoil my enjoyment either.
Although 'The Mushroom Pickers' is not entirely lacking in optimism - at least Nancy and Laura's father manage to forge some hope and normality from their shattered lives - there's little in the way of real, immediate comfort for a community who clearly have a long and painful way to go before they can exorcise ghosts, heal wounds and, like Laura, move on.