The Bunker Theatre has had a cracking start to 2019, what with Welcome to the UK, Boots and My White Best Friend (and Other Letters Left Unsaid) earning praise among audiences and critics alike. The rave reviews are set to continue with the theatre’s latest offering in the form of two one-woman plays, Box Clever and Killymuck, which both shine a light on those who are born with less.
In Box Clever, Redd Lily Roche plays Marnie, a young woman from the East End of London. From the moment Marnie appears on stage with blood stains dotted on her white jeans and t-shirt, it’s evident she has a powerful story to tell. She’s cheeky, brazen and isn’t afraid to fight for her corner, and as she begins with a lowdown of her relationship history it’s impossible not to warm to her. A single mother, Marnie is staying at a refuge after leaving her abusive boyfriend Liam but, as she says herself, trouble follows her everywhere. She’s also unfortunately boxed in at the refuge – for obvious reasons she’s unwilling to give up Liam’s name to the authorities, her mother isn’t helping the matter and she’s also unable to get the help she needs to move out and start a new life with her daughter, Autumn.
Directed by Stef O’Driscoll, Box Clever is a powerful and compelling account of one woman’s struggle with the care system. Monsay Whitney’s script combines dark comedy and brilliant one-liners with the brutal reality of Marnie’s situation and as a result offers up a perfectly imperfect character who’s not afraid to say what she thinks. Marnie has made mistakes in the past and she’s no angel, but she’s only trying to do what’s best for her daughter. The light-hearted tone of the first half is in complete contrast to the second when Marnie discovers the refuge isn’t the safe haven she hoped it would be. The set is sparse, with Roche boxed in by fluorescent lights and they flicker on and off as other characters speak and when Marnie is particularly pained. In the background hovers a white balloon representing Autumn, a reminder that Marnie’s daughter is constantly on her mind.
Redd Lily Roche puts in a stunning performance and is certainly an actress to watch in future. She takes on the voice of several characters within the play including Fifi, a social worker at the refuge who cares more about her job than the welfare of her occupants; Liam and Autumn, differentiating between them all convincingly. Every now and then she doubles over in pain and clutches at her stomach, a reminder of the abuse Marnie has suffered, not only from her ex-boyfriends but from the system too.
Killymuck meanwhile tells the story of Niamh (played by Aoife Lennon), who grew up on a council estate in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. Written by Kat Woods, the play is inspired by real-life events and explores how poverty leads to less opportunity. “None of us are born equal”, Niamh says, and that’s certainly true in her case as the audience discovers. The daughter of an alcoholic, often abusive father, Niamh struggles to live up to her dad’s expectations, has issues at school and is bullied by other children who look down at her second-hand clothes.
With neat direction from Caitriona Shoobridge, Killymuck explores how Niamh’s upbringing as a child within the benefits system has affected her life. The play uses the same set as Box Clever, with the addition of a chair and circle of earth, symbolising the pauper’s graveyard on which Killymuck is built (“is that why it’s cursed?” Niamh muses). At various points during the performance Lennon steps outside of the stage and the house lights are lifted as she delivers a series of sobering statistics on abortion and suicide in Northern Ireland, imposter syndrome and the true impact of poverty. At the end of the play she draws on a whiteboard, her simple but effective drawing suggesting that equity is more beneficial than equality.
Aoife Lennon skilfully brings Niamh to life with her brilliant and energetic performance, offering a masterclass in storytelling. At times she barely pauses to take breath because, as the audience soon discovers, Niamh has a lot to say. She’s enthusiastic when describing her happy childhood memories, and brings a vulnerable side to the character when talking about the not so happy memories. Like Roche, Lennon embodies a number of characters and does so well – she’s particularly menacing as Niamh’s father before he lashes out.
Both Box Clever and Killymuck are clever, powerful and thought-provoking productions offering a voice to a group of people who are often ignored. Though they can be viewed separately, it’s certainly worth watching them back-to-back to get the full impact and hear two very different stories about women who have both been failed by the system. With confident, faultless performances from the two actresses, Box Clever and Killymuck are essential and painfully realistic plays that must be seen, and are sure to stay with you for a long, long time.
Box Clever and Killymuck are playing at the Bunker Theatre until 13 April 2019.
Photo credit: Craig Sugden