Anxiety reigns supreme in the packed auditorium of the Mick Lally Theatre for Brú Theatre’s Selvage. It tells the story of Joe Fanny, whose life is disrupted suddenly when his activism-obsessed guardian Granny Fanny runs into trouble, and suddenly Joe is on his own, forced to confront the terrifying “gnaw” that feeds on his vulnerability. Granny Fanny, a good pantomime name, is but one example of how humour and poeticism are injected into every second of the piece – blink and you’ll miss another mini-masterpiece or one-liner. James Riordan performs the twisted fairy tale of 13 year old Joe’s adventures through neglect, arson, love, homelessness, anxiety and knitting. This piece is very busy – there’s puppetry in many forms, including shadow puppetry, eclectic and twitching movement that one can only imagine James Riordan capable of, sickeningly intense lighting effects, intricate prop work that does not seem physically possible at times, and of course audience participation. This is a molotov cocktail of anxiety inducing theatre elements and it works so beautifully and charismatically together that it’s hard to believe how intensely heartbreaking the story is at times or that you could leave with your face sore from smiling. Where some narrative and comedic moments are not brilliant, potential for greatness is felt in every line. This comes down to the simple excellence in Riordan’s performance and the complexly woven tapestry of sound, light, puppetry, set and story.
It is hard to produce a socially engaged and critical piece without appearing pandering to clickbait-y, “woke”-ness, and thankfully this is mostly avoided. Selvage manages to be politically relevant without gaudy didacticism. The irreverent humour of the assorted characters blends seamlessly with the tragic storybook tale of Joe’s “hero’s journey”. This mix of delicate beauty and blistering dark humour is complemented by the somewhat haunting score by another arts staple of galway, Anna Mullarkey. The music and sound design is yet another of the myriad talents being shown off in this piece. Although there are a million cogs working in this lovely and painful machine, it rarely feels overloaded or overworked. You cannot help but notice the complexity of the piece as Riordan dashes between the aisles and produces puppets and props from out of nowhere. The set appears so bare at first glance that as the story unfolds, of Joe and the monstrous figure of anxiety, the “gnaw”, that hangs over him, there is a steadily growing explosion of sight and sound all around the audience.
Following on from the very successful Brú production Cleite, a very quiet and understated play performed for a small audience in Katie’s Claddagh Cottage, Selvage maintains the same melancholia and honed aesthetics. But Selvage could not differ more stylistically from its predecessor, with wild energy and complexity throughout. That the company has managed to produce unique and original work while experimenting beyond the norms of theatre production is a feat to be celebrated. It isn’t easy to find an emerging theatre company that is so initially strong and intriguing. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so excited for more work from a theatre company.