First published in The Times, Tuesday August 16 2016
The Kerry Babies scandal of 1984, in which a woman was coerced into falsely confessing that she had murdered a newborn baby, is an important landmark in Irish legal history, highlighting the treatment of unmarried mothers. The ordeal endured by Joanne Hayes and her family, and the mystery of who killed “Baby John”, is ripe for dramatisation. The story certainly deserves better than this well-intentioned but amateurish production.
Caroline Burns Cooke, who also performs, wrote the monologue: a heightened version of the true-life story, dividing the narrative into several perspectives, including Hayes herself, the investigating officer and a Dublin-based feminist writer who offers a commentary on the case and its implications. At the level of the script, there are some decent ideas, wrapped in an interesting structure and some memorable episodes and individual lines.
The protagonist is taught by a formidable nun, who instructs all her young charges to ensure they leave the width of a telephone between their own bodies and those of any young men with whom they come into contact. In her overview of Irish family law, the feminist writer describes a loophole in the law that closed “faster than a hen’s ass after laying an ostrich egg”.
Yet, what might have worked well on the page proves torturous in the theatre, not least because Cooke herself appears under-rehearsed, at times misplacing the names of key characters and resorting to rambling when she forgets her lines. The minimalist nature of Colin Watkeys’s production doesn’t exactly facilitate our engagement: he might at least have used a few basic theatrical devices to help move the story from one scene to the next.
This is a pity, because there is a moment of real dark lyricism at the end, when we return to the voice of the central character, and the haunting image of her cutting the umbilical chord on her dead baby. A couple of people in the audience were understandably moved to tears, but it’s only a briefly affecting moment in an otherwise heavy-weather production.