Ma and Pa seem obsessed with the past, recalling unreliable memories, and conversing in an endless cycle of stories they have heard and told before yet can’t quite remember. Karen Dunbar and Gerry Mulgrew ooze sharp, sly wit and fantastical characterisation bordering on the grotesque as the aged Ma and Pa.
Charlotte Lane’s inspired set design blends muted tones of cream and beige with a thick, hardened layer of dust, depleted of any real-world sense of colour and fruitful life. Ma and Pa’s world encompasses a small surrealist living room with lamps and knickknacks littering the walls at obscure angles and sprawled across the ceiling like they’ve been frozen in time.
It is an existence where time goes in circles, freezes, and restarts as the outside world is blocked from bleeding in through the taped-up black-out curtains. With allusions to an apocalyptic disaster and a new, dangerous alternative reality outside, only Pa leaves their fortress once a week for essentials and cans for the fridge. Ma, an elderly woman with a bulging belly who refers to the ‘little mouths’ inside her bump, rarely leaves their self-elected prison apart from an outing to source eggs for her famous homemade custard.
The first half of the play exudes Beckettian absurdism and is relatively light-hearted as we fall into Ma and Pa’s toxic yet hypnotic co-dependent routine of farce and black comedy. The atmosphere shifts considerably from this brand of tragicomedy when a vulnerable stranger, saved by Pa, enters from the unseen bathroom in just a towel and a pair of trainers.
Their rescued guest Neil, portrayed brilliantly by Nalini Chetty, immediately threatens Ma with her appearance of youth, fertility, and femininity. As Ma probes her story about a traumatic ordeal and questions why Pa invited her to their high-rise home, the mood soon darkens.
Plagued with strange, guised references to lost children, an unsettling recurring theme of pregnancy and motherhood serves as the tipping point for Ma and Neil’s tone of sinister unsettlement which escalates into disturbing outbursts of full-blown rage. The atmosphere frequently flips back and forth from moments of storytelling and silly routines which are almost cheerful into painfully detailed and gruesome soliloquies.
This alarming pace, volume, and sense of urgency culminates in a troubling, climactic conclusion where the outside world finally cracks through. As Neil fights to escape her increasingly threatening and obsessive captors, Ma simulates labour pains while she pleads for help, and Pa obliviously shouts about being a child while sitting on the floor, clutching an old photo album.
Martin McCormick’s new play draws us into a fragmented world of wonderment, surrealism, and fear. The intensive experience of cabin-fever sucks the audience in like quicksand with eyeballs cemented on the strange and perplexing drama of Ma and Pa’s house-bound universe.