Bernard Farrell’s new play, Bookworms, at the Abbey Theatre works as a comedy and a gentle social reminder of the sort of people he peoples his plays with so well. On one level it is about those suburban aspirants who form book clubs to show off to their neighbours, to look down on same, or to expose others foibles, no matter how much the victims try to put forward a false front perception is a powerful barometer in these brittle comedies and audiences love to recognise the characters portrayed so accurately and this creates the chattering class, sustaining, aspiring and devouring itself out of almost perverse enjoyment.
This play, his twenty-first stage play, is not the often expected dark second act of pretensions pricked but looks instead at the post Celtic Tiger suburbanites who struggle to make sense of their place in a changing society of uncertainty. This is what makes the second act so hilarious and the tenuous situation so believable. It is a modern take on farce if you can survive the slow detailed exposition of the first act, set in the home of Ann and Larry, with a new built-on conservatory, where the lights change, and the background is the chimneys near the controversial Dublin Docklands Authority. Ann is holding a session of the Book Club, but friends are phoning to drop out and she needs to impress their dancer friend, Robert, and his control freak teacher wife, Jennifer. Larry is a plain as plaster builder, now on hard times and worried the banker will collapse his loans etc. They are joined by an ill-omened Dorothy whose friends keep dying on her and upstairs is Larry’s brother, with a murky past and a jail record, who makes churches out of matchsticks. Add to this the onscreen skype presence of daughter Aisling, on gap year in Australia, who adds a modern touch to the uncertainty.
By the end of the play, most of the topics are neatly and humorously exploited and resolved and Jim Culleton’s bland direction suits this approach. It is accurately cast and Marion O’Dwyer as Ann endears herself to the audience while Phelim Drew as Larry just passes muster. Louis Lovett as the banker, Robert, is a classic Farrell creation as is Karen Egan as the frantic wife.
Bernard Farrell is still able to deliver the goods and the audience rose to the occasion with gusts and gales of laughter.