“Dolly West’s Kitchen” is a play written by the respected Irish playwright Professor Frank McGuinness who has been Professor of Creative Writing at University College Dublin since 2007. The setting is wartime 1940s in an officially “neutral” Irish Free State that feels itself under potential invasion from all sides – not only from Germany, but from America and most certainly from the British and American troops stationed (and frequently visiting) just over the border in Derry in Northern Ireland.
Our story centres round the comfortably off family of Rima West (Irene Cuthbert) and her three adult children who all live at home with her in the coastal town of Buncrana. Eldest daughter Esther (Jennie Davidson) is in a loveless marriage with Ned (Callum Thomson). Ned also lives in Rima’s house. Second eldest is Dolly who does all the cooking and runs “Dolly West’s Kitchen”. Unlike her elder sister, Rima had left Ireland to go to Italy to see all its fabulous works of art. Dolly is particularly taken with the Ravenna mosaics. Dolly in fact liked Italy so much that she stayed there for eight years and opened a restaurant. A mixture of never fully being accepted as “Italian” and the rising fascism of Mussolini’s Italy made up her mind to return home to Ireland. Youngest of the family is Justin (Matthew Thomson) who is an officer in the Irish army and a fierce nationalist. Ned also serves in the army with Justin.
We also meet Alec (Andy Harris). English, but an old family friend (particularly of Dolly) and Anna (Nicole Irvine) the West’s household help.
Relative peace in the family is interrupted though as Alec, who has now joined the British Army, returns for a visit and for the first time encounters the full force of Justin’s nationalism. To add to things, mother Rima brings home two American soldiers . Both soldiers are cousins, but could not be more different. Jamie (David Rennie) is reserved and quiet while Marco (Iain MacDonald) is openly gay. It seems that Rima’s choice of house guests is not so random as it looks, as events cause Esther to re-examine her marriage and Justin to face up to his sexuality.
This is a well written play that touches on some more serious issues without getting trapped in them. We have the nationalistic patriotism of Justin who clearly wants a unified Ireland again, and at one point in a small argument between Ned and Anna the clear social divide that was between them and what Ned thought of a person with Anna’s family background. Oddly for the times, Justin’s sexuality seems to have been readily accepted in the household though. There are of course overtones in this work that potentially resonate with a Scottish audience.
This is only the second time that I have seen the actors of Leitheatre perform, and as before they are all simply outstanding. There is nothing amateur about this performance or production, and it is more professional than many a big name performance that I have seen. Leitheatre do theatre well – good acting, sets, costumes, lighting and sound. Having the title role’s character of course means that Jane Black as Dolly needs to be the central character on stage and it is a very strong performance. This is a household of “strong women” and Jennie Davidson is also very good as the loyal but very unhappy older sister Esther. Probably the best part in the play though goes to Irene Cuthbert as the mother Rima. Rima is an over the top character who says what she wants when she wants and Irene has obvious fun playing the part. All the male actors put in fine performances, but this is a work that really concentrates on the women of the house.
Dolly West’s Kitchen is on at The Festival Theatre’s Studio until 30th May. If you have time, try and get along and see this one. Although the bigger and fully professional companies may be the public face of theatre, it is small dramatic companies like Leitheatre that are the beating heart of theatre throughout the country.
For more information on Leitheatre and their productions go to their website at www.leitheatre.com
Review by Tom King