Hilarity in the stalls with Handbag Positive

HANDBAG Positive, Donna O'Connor's latest play which had the first night of its most recent outing courtesy of Joseph Rea Productions at the Waterfront Studio on Saturday, belongs to what you might call the hen night school of theatre.

That is dramas, written by and mainly for women and that are normally low in humour but empowering with a message about women power.

More nuanced than Maggie Muff's Dirty Dancin', Handbag features two middle-aged former schoolfriends and Bay City Roller fans who meet up in A & E where each is worrying (in different ways) about an elderly mother.

O'Connor is good at the bathos and one-liners. Attracta (excellent Christina Nelson) has the toughest hand in life, having to deal with a mean mammy she now cares for 24/7, a divorce, two grown-up half English kids who don't want to come to Northern Ireland to visit and a dire cardigan. She says her mother blamed her for everything from global warming"to the Kardashians".

The show is entertaining and we see Attracta and more attractive Nora (equally clever Alexandra Ford in full tartan regalia) return to their school days via vignettes planted in the hospital scenario.

We meet a horrible nun who taught them, Sr Bonaventura, Ford again, whose main aim seems to be to criticize and blame her charges for not only having a different life from hers, but also quite often creating new life.

The scene where she chastises Nora's mother for her daughter's teenage pregnancy was telling and funny. Predictably, Nora's mum ends up calling her Sister No-adventura.

We ricochet from poignant recollection as the pair recall their lives in the timeless zone of the hospital to humorous outbursts and snatches of the Rollers' hits. The best bits are probably the school days and Attracta's account of her divorce as her husband makes off with a male Filipino care worker.

Like life, it ends badly. Directed by funny man Alan McKee, the production has a real problem of tone at the end - as there was in Leesa Harker's Fifty Shades of Red, White and Blue - where cackling comedy is meant to turn to real sadness.

Here, Nora learns her lovely mother has unexpectedly died, after taking a turn at the bingo, and she reappears centre stage in tears. Many in the audience were still laughing at the previous gags and it took a while for the dramatic penny to drop.

Of course, O'Connor can't resist ending with ripe humour. Nora bemoans her loss, and promises to help her friend find a new wardrobe and get a night out with the greyhound fan who's pursuing her.

Then Attracta is called to her mum's bedside and comes back in high emotion. Could we have lost two mammies and made the Oscar Wilde line come true? No, no carelessness on that front, the downtrodden daughter shrieks she's furious her ghastly mother is still alive.

Cue more hilarity in the stalls but maybe a swifter, sadder ending could have worked better.

Handbag Positive runs until October 31, box office Tel 9033 4455.


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