Photo – Ponch Hawkes
Vanessa O’Neill’s one-woman show is enjoying a comeback at La Mama after a happy season last year. Framed within her partial excavation of the story of her great-grandfather, seeking an answer to the question of why he lies with one of his daughters in an unmarked grave in Western Australia, O’Neill pays homage to her father, an Alzheimer’s sufferer, and ties in the above with stories of her ancestor Owen Roe, who led a rebellion against the English in the 1640s, as well as stories of her romantic life and motherhood.
In Search of Owen Roe is about all of these things and nothing: without a unifying dramatic premise or question or real character arc, it’s as unsatisfying as the ultimate non-event of O’Neill’s grandfather’s story. This performance is essentially a series of musings and anecdotes which are meant to be moving but for me comes across as, well, twee. I wish I cared more. In Search of Owen Roe is a sweet and charming show, and yes, we do love an Irish accent. Plenty of us feel attached to our Irish ancestry. But if there’s a tendency in our culture to romanticise the Irish character, the rebels in particular, this tendency plays out here.
When O’Neill tells stories of her amorous adventures in the Emerald Isle, one thinks ‘well, good for her. And so what?’ The work ends up by connecting an historical rebellion by the Irish against the English with the notion of freeing dementia sufferers from their nursing home, a conceit which is downright silly. O’Neill alludes briefly to her own struggles with insomnia and nights spent obsessing about her family history, but this element doesn’t play out any more profoundly than any of the rest. On the whole the writing is fine but contains a few tired phrases along the lines of 'floods of tears' (if not that actual phrase.)
O’Neill is a warm and engaging performer, confidently switching characters and creating atmosphere; there’s nothing to object to in this show and you don't get bored, but it doesn’t resolve its apparent question and basically is a series of ideas thrown together (along with a bit of Shakespeare; an almost pretentious addition) without a deep psychological or dramatic structural concept to underpin the whole thing. My favourite bit was O’Neill’s portrayal of fielding earnest family queries as to what she is doing, exactly – conceptually this element provides a retrospective moment of irony and humour, since the audience ends up wondering the same thing about this show.
La Mama presents
In Search of Owen Roe
by Vanessa O’Neill
Director Glynis Angell
Venue: La Mama Theatre 205 Faraday Street, Carlton
Dates: 11 – 28 May, 2016
Tickets: $25 – $15