Adam Devereux, Anne O' Riordan, Anorexia Nervosa, Assembly Roxy, Eating Disorder, Edinburgh Fringe, Eva O'Connor, Eva O'Connor's Overshadowed, Mental Illness, Roseanna Lynch, Sinéad Clancy, Sunday's Child, Theatre Review
Many years ago, a student who was visibly suffering from an eating disorder would daily pass through the building where I worked. Behind her emaciated back, my fellow staff were all sympathy. “The poor thing,” they would chorus, “being so unwell, the poor dear.” I agreed with this though I equally sensed that it was not quite the full picture. To me, the girl always looked immensely serene. Her peaceful smile was not pointed at us like the mask that her horrendous appearance otherwise suggested. She instead gave the impression that the eating disorder was a regrettable mishap, as if a bird had shat in her hair and she was cool enough to look bemused as she stalked off in search of wet paper towels. In other words, the cross looked so heavy only because its bearer was so light.
The unbendable anorexic, who shakes her head tearfully at petitioning relatives, has been the ornament of innumerable soap operas and issues-based dramas since the 1990s. In her latest play “Overshadowed,” Eva O’Connor does not necessarily bring originality or subtlety to this story, but the telling is so intense that you may fail to remember how familiar the story normally is. Everyday anorexia is here investigated with imagination and considerable compassion.
“Overshadowed” is the fifth play that the Dublin-based theatre company Sunday’s Child has brought to as many Fringes. This year Sunday’s Child is quartered in the old Roxy Art House, which is lately an Assembly venue. The earlier plays were something of a meal, albeit one made to a highly individual recipe which mixed student earnestness, lyrical wisecracking, Sylvia Plath, and a kind of cabaret razzmatazz. This all worked and you could rejoice in it quite happily. “Overshadowed,” in common with 2014’s “My Name is Saoirse,” seems more mature – there is less of a flash and more bite to the bullet.
I typically refer to Sunday’s Child as if it is solely a front for O’Connor. Her magnetism as a performer is an aesthetic bump which her plays will probably never smooth out. This time, as always, she is like a soul singer and however talented the cast, they all come to somehow resemble a backing band. Yet the imbalance is partly rectified in “Overshadowed” by consigning O’Connor to a different species or a separate dimension to the rest of the characters.
Imogen (Roseanna Lynch) once invented a silly exercise regime called “the worm,” which she and her little sister Tara (Anne O’ Riordan) had played on their kitchen floor. When those anorexic corpuscles invade the teenaged Imogen’s blood, the disorder is also projected into the rooms of her home as Caol (O’Connor), a humanoid, louse-coloured creature which only Imogen can see and hear. Tara is now essentially a former sister, not only “overshadowed” by Imogen but replaced by Caol.
The audience might be grateful for Caol, since the entertainment of this device distracts from the characteristic grossness of eating disorders, those hidden plastic bags full of vomit and those wrist-thin biceps. Caol is apparently Gaelic for “slender.” This beast constantly demands control and she speaks exclusively in rhyming couplets, which certainly underscores her own commitment to discipline. She is akin to the voices that schizophrenics hear, except with a body. She pours herself noiselessly around the stage and insinuates her way round and round Imogen like the coils of a snake. She has the sinuous, flowing, arch-physicality of an angel created by William Blake. She is faintly glorious, in the same compact way that scorpions are glorious.
Consigned to the bottom of a sea of helplessness, bobbing in her entranced state, Imogen will never answer back to Caol. Something in this play might bode an eventual moment of climactic liberation, in which Imogen turns on Caol and smacks her one, to a great carousing cheer from the audience. But Caol’s over-identifiable villainy falsely hints at an easy resolution. Imogen is potentially redeemed when she steps out of her own head and becomes aware of the insecure drug-dealer Eamonn (Adam Devereux). Caol remains relaxed though – she is not anything as dicey as love, she is pathology.