Annette O'Shea, Assembly George Square Studios, Brendan O'Neill, Democracy, Edinburgh Fringe, Eva O'Connor, Generation Snowflake, Harun al-Rashid, Hildegard Ryan, Mary O'Loan, One Thousand and One Nights, Pius McGrath, Scheherazade, Students, Sunday's Child, The Friday Night Effect, Theatre Review
Sunday’s Child are from Dublin and their new play “The Friday Night Effect” has just finished up at the Assembly George Square Studios. It is written by Eva O’Connor and Hildegard Ryan, the founders of Sunday’s Child, and O’Connor plays the central character Colette. This is the sixth show featuring O’Connor that I have reviewed in as many years, and I am now practically jumping on my imagination to try to squeeze out original new ways of describing her. Unhelpfully in this respect, “The Friday Night Effect” does not depart radically from the standard template for a Sunday’s Child production. It remains as doggedly issues-based as any 1990s soap opera, with its storylines devoted to mental illness, sexual harassment, domestic violence, alcoholism, and the resort to sex work amongst penurious students. There are so many of these storylines jostling together, in fact, that it is as if the writers have overdosed on Emmerdale instead of the cocaine (another issue in the play).
Nonetheless, you are left with the strange impression that otherwise gifted writers have perversely chosen to script an episode of Emmerdale. There is the normal Sunday’s Child lyricism and va-va-voom in evidence throughout the dialogue. And then there is O’Connor herself: this glamorous diva who always makes the other actors look faintly like a backing band. There is the standard mystery about how autobiographical her play is. In the version of “The Friday Night Effect” that I saw, her character Colette is crucified, a martyr to a mixture of depression, domestic violence, and some hapless friends. With Colette’s fellow housemates (Mary O’Loan and Annette O’Shea), it is as though the two thieves have slipped off their adjoining crosses and scampered away.
Or perhaps I am being a little unfair this year – “The Friday Night Effect” seems more rounded than previous productions, with O’Connor’s sharpness being matched by the rest of the cast. Indeed, O’Shea twinkles during some uncanny mimicry of a coked-out girl who is trying to follow a conversation in a nightclub. There is a subtle balancing throughout “The Friday Night Effect” between the raw melodrama of Colette’s story and the gutsy independence of her housemates. Neither in the end pushes the other out of the play.
In a further relinquishing of O’Connor’s powers, we are roped in too. At key points, the performance stops and we are asked to spend “thirty seconds” deciding what the characters should do. I don’t have the mathematical mind to figure out how many configurations this double-jointed narrative can be bent into; I don’t know the number of times that you would need to watch it, on average, in order to experience all of the available versions.
I suspect that the interactivity is merely a bit of teasing. At the beginning of “The Friday Night Effect,” we are told that Colette “will be dead” by the end. We surely cannot do anything to arrest the nightmarish slide of this show. Indeed, the characters are so vivid and independent that it is unlikely that they could ever be our puppets. The audience discussions are brief, awkward and aghast. We have thirty seconds to decide whether or not Colette’s boyfriend Brian (Pius McGrath) should be framed for murder. “Toss a coin,” I urge. O’Connor is still in aesthetic supreme command – her audience are as impotent as the European parliament.
Or I could have got it wrong. Maybe if you keep watching version after version of “The Friday Night Effect,” an audience will eventually converge that is sufficiently freakish to unlock this play. All of the characters will end up getting happily married in Las Vegas.
I have elected to end my Fringe coverage with O’Connor because she swims against a depressing current. She returns to the Fringe year after year and she has stuck with theatre over all other modes of storytelling (although Sunday’s Child also publishes the scripts). Every year, I see a vast abundance of talent at the Fringe and yet it always vanishes like rain after a thunderstorm. I sometimes imagine the student playwrights who I have so lavishly praised being swallowed up into merchant banking once they have graduated. Doubtless they now have eventless lives and bags under their eyes. Absconding theatre-makers should take heed of that warning from Marina Warner: “When you forget to play, life begins to lose the struggle with death.”
I have a lot of time for Brendan O’Neill, but something jars when I read his latest headline article in the Spectator and compare it to my experience of the Edinburgh Fringe.
O’Neill is writing about the failings of modern university students, their culture, and their representatives. He describes today’s students as “more censorious than stimulating and taught not to question ideas but to learn by heart the progressive creed.” I am sure that you can list the evidence off your fingers – the “snowflakes,” the “safe spaces,” the trigger warnings, the banning of tabloid newspapers, the no-platforming of dangerous extremists such as… er, Germaine Greer, and the hysterical panic about “rape culture.” O’Neill writes that universities “now resemble factories of conformism, training their student body not to think freely but to fear the eccentric, hide from the provocative, and prize their self-esteem more highly than their intellectual development.”
The problem lies, I think, in the dismissive and very worrying attitude that many students hold towards democracy. The average student does not see the student union as a democratic political organisation to represent their interests, but as a faraway club for narcissistic weirdos. The turnouts in student elections are currently tiny – whoever stands usually wins. Pseudo-elected insects thus end up lording it over campuses and imposing their incomprehensible edicts, which the mass of the student body do their best to ignore.
If O’Neill would like some reassurance about the soundness of the student character, then he should visit the Edinburgh Fringe. More often than not, the youth theatre this year has been dynamic and intellectually daring. The theatre can never, of course, be a “safe space.” It has to be exciting in order to attract audiences and if any director tries to deliver a “trigger warning,” the audience are likely to respond with a desolate, unimpressed silence. Student theatre showcases the creative elite of the younger generation, rather than its elected representatives, but there is something about having to engage with audience after audience, night after night, that makes it far more democratic than student democracy. Even if it is rare for audiences to literally vote as they do in “The Friday Night Effect.”
Morning now dawned and Scheherazade broke off from what she had been allowed to say. Then, when it was the one thousandth and second night, SHE CONTINUED:
I have heard, O fortunate king, that the Commander of the Faithful, Harun al-Rashid, had gazed upon this mighty city in which so much was unfolding and he felt lost. So he ordered his boon companions to search the kingdom far and wide for the best theatre critic, who would serve him as a guide for this most perplexing and secretive of cities.
“To hear is to obey!” they replied in one voice.
The caliph’s companions fetched theatre critics from all of the leading newspapers and websites. They also, as an afterthought, plucked an ill-looking blogger called Tychy from the hovel in which he dwelt.
These critics were ushered into the presence of the Commander of the Faithful, where they found divans arrayed for them that were piled with the most gorgeous cushions. The caliph invited them to sit and he then inquired of them as to the very best plays in the city.
All of the critics seated themselves and they spoke immediately in the floweriest of language of fashionable plays and of extraordinary theatrical achievements. Only this grim, unkempt blogger remained silent. Finally the caliph addressed him by name and asked for his insights.
“Commander of the Faithful,” Tychy spoke up. “This talk of theatre is all very well and good, but do you know what? Some bugger has placed a pea underneath all of these cushions on which I am sitting. It is highly vexing.”
Harun al-Rashid rejoiced and he cried, “why, this is the most sensitive and perceptive theatre critic of them all!” He then gave Tychy a robe of honour and all of the other critics were made to kneel, one by one, on the executioner’s mat.
“It is growing dark,” the Commander of the Faithful proclaimed. “Let us venture out into this city of a thousand worlds, incognito, to seek out what mystery and adventure we can. There are so many sequences of possibilities waiting for us. Oh Tychy, take my arm! This city is the greatest adventure that you and I will ever know.”