In the not-so-distant past, 17 year old Jacob (Sean Basil Crawford) cares for his younger brother Lucas (Finian Duff Lennon). They have been long abandoned by their mother and more recently by their alcoholic father. Jacob attempts to maintain their tiny family unit but struggles between being a brother and a de facto father to his younger sibling. They both must adhere to a strict routine and play by their self-imposed rules in order to remain under the radar of social services. Their high-spirited neighbour and friend, Terry (Karen Kelly), offers support to Jacob and provides a skewed maternal figure for Lucas. This unlikely trio are just about holding things together until the brothers’ mother, Mary (Maree Jane Duffy), emerges from the past and tests the strength of the brothers’ bond.
Directed by Marshall the performances in general are very well polished with excellent use of the actors’ skills and the performance space. As the titular Jacob, Crawford portrays a tormented and struggling young man on the verge of adulthood who has far too much responsibility on his shoulders. The character’s rage, anguish, and pain all come across clearly in the myriad of emotional scenes.
The issue of casting a child actor or not usually poses a problem when a story demands one. A young actor might not have the required skills or stamina, and an adult playing the role of a child can be equally as challenging, not to mention cringe worthy. PÚCA took, presumably, a calculated risk with Duff Lennon and it paid off hugely. He and Crawford work so well together that their onstage bond feels deeper than the action seen and the words heard; they are wholly believable as brothers combining the love and disdain that are usually only forged through blood bonds.
The absent and aloof mother, ably portrayed by Duffy, presents a pseudo-villain who takes the blame for the real monster in the family but she is no more likeable because of it. Kelly as Terry provides much needed comic relief as the howya-with-a-heart and without her the piece would be far too dark. Her casual physical dexterity paired with her facial expressions are a source of joy and humour throughout, so much so that merely her presence on stage is enough to lighten the mood.
The well designed set (Ciara Murnane) serves to evoke the dank despair in which the brothers live. Bill Woodland’s sound and lighting design brings the entire piece together and demonstrates just how powerful these assets are in theatre. A near constant static sound foreshadows something that lies beneath the surface of this play; combined with exquisite lighting this not only adds to the production values but more importantly to the story itself.
Generally well-paced there are a few superfluous, if well-constructed, scenes. This is a tale with an Enda Walsh-esque twist that is commendable but jars slightly with the rest of the story. No great closure is offered to the audience, or indeed the characters, but perhaps that is the point.
Happy Birthday Jacob is a brilliant debut from both Michael Marshall and PÚCA Productions. The story is strong overall and the performances are solid throughout. Combined with high production values this results in an excellent 90 minutes of theatre that is well worth checking out, if you can get a ticket, that is. Marshal and PÚCA are definitely ones to watch.
Writer and Director: Michael Marshall
Producer and Set Designer: Ciara Murnane
Costume Design: Mary Sheehan
Lighting and Sound Design: Bill Woodland
Stage Manager: Ciara Gallagher
Choreographer: Hilary Murnane