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BWW Review: Consecrating Childhood Confusions in Frank O'Connor's GOD BLESS THE CHILD


This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of the acclaimed Irish short story writer Frank O'Connor. A close friend of W.B. Yeats, O'Connor had a difficult relationship with Ireland where many of his books were banned. In the 1950s, O'Connor effectively went into exile in the US and his work regularly featured in the prestigious New Yorker. Today, O'Connor is better known in the US than he is in his native country.

In God Bless the Child, Pat Talbot takes three of O'Connor short stories written from a child's perspective - My Oedipus Complex, The Genius, and First Confession - and adapts them for the stage.

In a school classroom with three rows of desks, dominated by a hanging crucifix and framed by images of the Virgin Mary and the Sacred Heart, we meet Michael, Larry, and Jackie. Played by three adult actors costumed in short pants, God Bless the Child charts its characters' faltering attempts to navigate their way in a strange, uncertain world.

Michael is struggling to deal with his father's return from the war. During his absence, Michael enjoyed an idyllic life with his mother ("The war was the most peaceful phase of my life."), but now Michael's place in his mother's bed has been usurped by his tetchy father.

Meanwhile, Larry, who wants to be an explorer or a composer when he grows up, falls in love with Una and believes that babies come from the interlocking of a mother's engine with a father's starting handle.

Jackie's anxieties about his impending First Confession, compounded when he can't find the priest inside the confessional, are stoked by his innate fear that he will admit his overwhelming urge to kill his interfering grandmother and sister.

Talbot's script judiciously intercuts the three storylines and accurately captures the musicality of the Cork city accent - O'Connor's birthplace. The actors deliver highly physical performances that convincingly portray their characters' blend of shyness, wonder, and impulsiveness. In a spirited production, the trio display assured comic timing as they confidently mine O'Connor's touching depictions of innocence.

Under Talbot's intuitive direction, Shane Casey snapshots Michael's swelling disbelief at the mysterious antics of the adult world, Gary Murphy essays a high-pitched, bumbling Larry, and Ciaran Bermingham unearths the vulnerability underneath Jackie's intense, gruff exterior.

Typically addressing the audience directly, the actors only interact when playing characters within each of the boy's stories (for example, during Michael's story, Murphy plays Michael's mother and Bermingham plays his father). But the three protagonists never communicate directly and this can, occasionally, dent the production's momentum. Elsewhere, the characters' repeated delivery of their prayers - the actors reverently say the Our Father and the Hail Mary while kneeling across the front of the stage - becomes a little wearying.

Still, God Bless the Child is a faithful representation of three of O'Connor's strongest short stories. As it explores universal themes, the play spotlights young characters stumbling on endearing truths ("Love," Larry concludes, "is a game two people cannot play without pushing".). Ultimately, God Bless the Child might help reintroduce O'Connor to a place his work is often overlooked: his homeland.

God Bless the Child tours Ireland until September 15. See @PatrickTalbot

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