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Review: Marie Jones breaks new ground with Dear Arabella at Lyric Theatre

Dear Arabella showing at the Lyric
Jane Hardy

Dear Arabella at Lyric Theatre in Belfast

With Dear Arabella, premiered this week at the Lyric Theatre, Marie Jones is breaking new ground. Although one of the three linked female monologues is set in her east Belfast heartland, overall it’s new territory.

The play concerns women on the edge. We meet Jean, Elsie and the eponymous Arabella as they cope with post-War (and pre-Troubles) problems. Few playwrights could deftly make a man’s final encounter with the gas oven bleakly entertaining but in Ms Jones’ account of Jean’s home patch in Rockhammer Street, she pulls it off.

The shopkeeper rejoices as he sells confectionery and biscuits for neighbours to give the grieving family. Jean needs to escape the claustrophobia and her crotchety mother indoors who swats flies for fun. Significantly, they live on the side of the street where the sun doesn’t shine.

Elsie has a war veteran husband, Cecil, who has lost an arm and any kindness towards her. And posh Arabella, maybe the least convincing, is alone in the family home mourning the life she should have had with the husband who was lost at sea.

The play which began as a single story presented under director Lindsay Posner at the Royal Court deals with the way all things connect.

Because of the older couple’s position on the train opposite her, and Elsie’s gift of sandwiches, Jean’s emboldened to spend an evening on the beach. Because of her presence on the beach near Arabella’s house, there is a brief encounter which in turn liberates Arabella. And because of the lost egg sarnies, Elsie and Cecil confront their emptiness.

Gemma Jones was in the original London outing but the three actors, particularly Katie Tumelty as Jean, do Marie Jones proud here.

They present the script in front of a vast photographic seascape with real feeling. Laura Hughes as Elsie is very engaging, although I felt Cecil’s wartime story didn’t entirely fit in. Lucia McAnespie as Arabella convincingly conveys a woman who’s lost her moorings.

Inevitably, the endings are hopeful rather than happy. Jean sums up, revealing she wrote not one but weekly letters to Arabella in informal therapy. Yet they served their purpose. “ I wrote to her, and poured my heart out to her. She would probably never get (them), but it didn’t matter.”

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