I’m not a Catholic but I nearly was. Daughter of a lapsed Irish Catholic who would have ended up a priest if he hadn’t moved to England at five, the faint whiff of Catholicism and the colourful stories of the extended family he had left behind in Ireland were always present in our household when I was growing up. Ireland feels like home to me when I visit even though I grew up in England. I was hoping that A Girl is a Half-formed Thing would transport me there, even though the premise for the show didn’t sound exactly cheerful. Well, it certainly transported me to my Father’s homeland, but it was very far from an easy experience.
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is presented by The Corn Exchange and has been adapted for the stage by Annie Ryan from the award-winning novel written by Eimear McBride. It has had incredibly good reviews; sold out at the 2014 Dublin Theatre Festival and highly acclaimed at the 2015 Edinburgh Festival. Aoife Duffin, an actress from Kerry who is able to make us believe this part was written for just her, performs the inner narrative of this vulnerable Irish girl. Alone on the stage, the one-woman monologue is delivered expertly and flawlessly by Duffin. The audience is brutally dragged by the collar through the bleak existence of our female protagonist. Her beloved brother became brain damaged because he had cancer. Her father is absent and her mother is controlling and spiteful, probably to the point of being abusive. Her Granddad extols the virtues of being a good little Catholic girl, and chastises her harshly when she is unable to live up to his ideals. Her uncle rapes her at 13, and this sends her on a downward spiral that is depressing and difficult to watch. Clearly blaming herself for this abuse, she engages in ever more degrading and abusive sexual encounters. Her promiscuity is a form of punishment and self-harm. The physical violence she suffers at the hands of some of her sexual partners are the penance for her sins and for the woman she feels she has become. Although there are some moments of laughter amongst all this chaos and horror, they do little to lift this show out of the difficult to watch thing that it is.
I was trying to think of a more poetic way of putting it, but quite simply, I did not like this production. My beef with this show is in no way down to Aoife Duffin. She has won many awards for her acting in this piece and all these accolades are rightfully deserved. It was an intense and harrowing performance. I always admire and appreciate the skill that goes into a one-person monologue, but with Duffin I was more impressed than most. She seamlessly slipped from character to character, breathing life into them and fleshing them out. The dialogue was incredibly fast paced and it would have been totally forgivable if Duffin had occasionally slipped up, but she really was faultless in her delivery. I felt beaten up at the very end, exhausted and depressed. But at the end of the show Duffin also looked like she was as beaten up as I imagined many in the audience felt, and I wondered about the toil this theatre production must take on her. The writing is excellent, but I suppose I just wish the book it was taken from had not existed in the first place. I wanted there to be some salvation for our nameless victim, some redemption for all she had been through. When it did not come I felt as drained as Duffin looked whilst she was taking her applause.
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is on at Tobacco Factory Theatres until 30th January. Apparently this show is as good as sold out, so it will be near impossible to get a ticket. I’m glad of this, as my review would surely not make people wish to see it. Maybe it was just me, my viewpoint seems to differ from many of the reviewers out there. I do hope the other audiences get more from it than I did, as then maybe this will prove to be redemption after all for this poor unnamed girl.
Review by Karen Blake