[The following contains mild spoilers.]
It is not to say that I have had a bad experience so far – indeed, at which Fringe in living memory has it been possible to get a tan? – but sampling Fringe theatre in 2012 has been rather like visiting a teddy bears’ hospital. Just as every patient in the bears’ wards has an eye missing or a conspicuous bald patch somewhere, every play that I have seen up until now has been somehow incomplete, marred however mildly by errors of judgment from either the writers or cast. Yet Alan Flanagan’s latest play “Irreconcilable Differences,” which can be currently found at the Point Hotel, is perhaps the nearest that we have got so far to wholeness.
This may indicate more about me than about the show. One of my favourite plays at last year’s Fringe was Murray Watts’ “Happiness,” and “Irreconcilable Differences” is very similar in its message, story and atmosphere. We watch a middle-aged couple (Killian Sheridan and Laura Kelly) have the most explosive row of their marriage. The entire history of their relationship is reviewed and revelations go off like fireworks on the last night of an opera. This production comes from Dublin and the cheerful hatred between the couple Ben and Polly reminded me oddly of the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York.” Indeed, by the end of this play the song was stuck in my head.
“Irreconcilable Differences” is a story of total human failure but it relies upon an occasional shrewdly-judged comic line to prevent its misery from overpowering the audience, as if stars have been sprinkled over its blackness. Yet towards the end of the play, we are punished for enjoying ourselves too much at the beginning and there are periods of unimpeded remorselessness. Incidentally, the same thing happened in “Happiness.”
Yet “Irreconcilable Differences” achieves an originality of its own through a plot device which at first seems like only a gimmick. Ben and Polly have been smashed up together in a car crash, and they are now both waiting to be admitted to the afterlife. One of the couple will be spared, however, rather as if hell was a Fringe production and there was only a single seat left. We, the audience, are supposed to serve as a sort of jury and decide which of the pair will survive, whilst the couple will each act in their own defence. It would have been interesting if our court had accorded the pair some angelic lawyers, but such an insistence upon procedure may have spoiled the play.
We will each cast our vote by placing a coin on to a pair of scales. Ben and Polly make impassioned pleas to be allowed to live again, but we will be ultimately forced to question the usefulness of our deliberations. When it comes to the afterlife, the question of our exact location is left unspecified. If this is heaven, it includes complimentary alcohol. But the process of pleading to live is so torturous that the couple could be already in hell. Moreover, neither Ben nor Polly can remember the period leading up to their car crash, and we may find ourselves wondering whether this couple were so miserable on Earth that they had deliberately crashed their car in a drunken suicide pact.
If love is an act of aesthetic appreciation, Ben and Polly both appear to be too unimaginative to truly love each other. Or rather, the challenge for these characters is to see beyond themselves and understand that one can have no real life without the other, whether on Earth or in the hereafter. Morality, love, and basic common sense command that they drop their pleas and no longer recognise the authority of the audience. To couch this in the terms of the wise Chinese fable, they should stop trying to use their chopsticks to feed themselves and instead feed one another, changing hell to heaven in an instant.