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Town is Dead review at Abbey Theatre, Dublin – ‘confused and confusing’

Kate Gilmore and Barbara Brennan in Town is Dead at Abbey Theatre, Dublin. Kate Gilmore and Barbara Brennan in Town is Dead at Abbey Theatre, Dublin.

Has the performance begun? The chattering auditorium grows wearily silent as a figure onstage gives an occasional cough. This false-start sets the tone – confusion – for Town is Dead, a “play within music”, previously marketed as a “living-room musical”, though the script notes it can be produced “without music” if wished.

Ambiguities of form aside, the content is also decisive in this new work by playwright Philip McMahon and composer Raymond Scannell. Ellen (Barbara Brennan), a woman in her late 60s, has to leave her Dublin flat when the building is sold for office space. Given Ireland’s current housing crisis, portraying a life caught in enduring transit feels urgent.

Ellen is beset by neighbours and family members: a Croatian immigrant played with zeal and wit by Kate Gilmore, and Conall Keating as Ellen’s alienated son. But only on the arrival of a mysterious English woman (a nimble Fia Houston-Hamilton) are the harrowing details of Ellen’s life revealed.

Brennan’s performance is lacking in nuance and subtlety. The character is hard to locate amid the mix of chewed expressions and growls. It doesn’t help that Scannell’s music – a light suite for harp, keyboard and clarinet – doesn’t darken for the play’s more painful revelations.

McMahon’s production – he also directs – is relentless but it can’t cover up the transparency of the plot – the final twist can be seen coming from a mile off. And the whole thing is caught in some wretched twilight between musical theatre and drama.

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Confused musical theatre collaboration that misses many of its marks