Michael West’s Conservatory, showing at the Abbey Theatre’s neglected sister stage, the Peacock, is an intriguing piece of new Irish writing. It begins with an elderly couple, credited only as He and She, bickering about copulating cats and crossword puzzles. The dialogue is rapid and witty, and full of ingenious but playful put-downs. The play is set up as a light-hearted comedy about the trials and tribulations of marriage. As the couple’s conversation continues, however, things take a darker turn.
Hints are dropped about just how miserable their life together has been, and there is a sense that the dismal pair are bound by their pain rather than any real affection for each other. Numerous affairs are alluded to but never elaborated on, and we learn that their adult daughters refuse to have any contact with their father. The couple realise that everyone who attended their wedding is now dead, highlighting their isolation as well as their own mortality. There are references to amalgamated churches, lost grounds, and severed friendships. Change is beyond their control, and they reflect sorrowfully on the past. Mid-way through the play, a mysterious box is brought out, which eventually reveals the most heart-breaking secret of all.
The acting is impressive, with Deirdre Donnelly’s austerity and restraint perfectly balancing Stephen Brennan’s passionate ranting and raving. The set is refreshingly sparse. Two high-backed armchairs face each other in a bare living room, effectively demonstrating the emptiness of their lives and their inability to escape each other. The lighting is almost ghostly, implying that the space is haunted by unsavoury memories. The writing is entertaining for the most part, though some of the jokes fall a bit flat. In addition to this, a couple of scenes drag on too long to hold the audience’s attention, and could easily have been cut down without sacrificing any of the effect. Though the penultimate scene is incredibly moving, the ending is bizarre and unnecessary.
In terms of plot and humour, Conservatory caters mostly to an older crowd. As a thought-provoking and memorable exploration of love and loss, however, its appeal is universal.