First published in The Times, Thursday July 9 2015
Sweet, sensitive 25-year-old Stevie (Declan Rodgers) is wallowing in grief following a painful break-up. Relief comes in the unlikely form of Martha (Karen Dunbar), an attractive, unaffected but lonely Glaswegian widow more than twenty years his senior. Stevie encounters her in his local Starbuck’s.
Both are determined to keep the relationship that follows on a strict friends-with-benefits footing, but when their fling reaches the eyes and ears of Stevie’s religious conservative Mammy (Carol Moore) and fervent Protestant sister (Abigail McGibbon), Stevie and Martha are forced to confront the depth of their feelings for one another.
David Ireland’s romantic comedy, which premiered at the Lyric, Belfast last summer, contains more than its fair share of pleasant surprises. For starters, the action takes place against the backdrop of a lovingly evoked contemporary Northern Ireland where characters engage with but are not wholly defined by the legacy of the Troubles. More refreshing, however, is the warmth the playwright brings to a genre that can often get mired in sourness and cynicism, presenting, for once, a heterosexual man and woman who actually enjoy a tangible mutual passion and affection.
Conleth Hill’s production is deftly paced and occasionally insightful about the capacity of love to withstand prejudice and generational shifts in attitudes to sex. Although the play fails to sustain its two-hour length, becoming more than a little repetitive in its climactic scenes, our engagement with the characters is kept alive by strong performances. Moore is exceptional as Dorothy, the Belfast lioness defending her precious cub, while McGibbon provides comic relief as the fanatic who takes Ulster Scots lessons and refers to Glasgow as “the Motherland”. While there are few surprises in the play’s dénouement, the likeable Dunbar and Rodgers make us root for Martha and Stevie throughout.