Lay Me Down Softly debuts at the Peacock – Frances Beatty was thereto have a look-see
Tired and subdued as term draws to a close? You may feel that the title of Billy Roche’s new play Lay Me Down Softly encapsulates all your innermost wants: lay me down softly between freshly laundered sheets with a homemade dinner and a cup of tea made by a loving family member…where was I? Ah yes, if you are feeling even slightly more energetic than this it’s not the play for you.
For a play set in the boxing both of a travelling road show it is surprisingly ‘soft’. Indeed, Billy Roche seems to have gone to quite some effort to write the ‘drama’ out of the script. The star attraction of this run down sideshow and the great anticipated action of the play: the fight between the amateur Junior and a professional boxer, is left to the imagination. We see Junior’s trainer and general handyman Peader tending his protégé’s wounds but the bloodshed itself occurs in between scenes. Again, the fight between Ernie and Paddy Hickey, the bookie, over fortune-teller Sadie takes place offstage, accompanied only by sound effects. Often imagined violence can create far more tension than a visible assault (note Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ where audiences never see the stabbing itself but make an imagined link between the knife and bare flesh, to the extent that most viewers believe they have seen the attack in all its gruesome detail) but in this production it seemed to highlight the gaping lack of plot and on-stage energy.
Of course, not all plays are about plot. Roche’s characters are given emotional depth and time is devoted to sensitively teasing out themes of love and loss, but the loss most acutely felt was the loss of the play’s potential. The characters and the situation are so believable it is frustrating that Roche doesn’t trust them to hold their own against a more demanding plot.
Well-written and complex characters are nothing without adept actors and the cast of ‘Lay Me Down Softly’ is truly superb. Emer, the manager’s estranged daughter, is the emotional focus of the play and has the demanding task of overcoming the dominant physical presence of three of the four male actors. For such a small, fragile-seeming actress Ruth Negga somehow managed to fill the stage, she drew the audience’s attention with an effortless magnetism. Moreover, Peader, who hardly speaks throughout the course of the play, and has a shabbiness to match the decay of the fairground itself, conveys huge emotion and strength through submissive facial expressions and a crumpled posture. Even when slumped at the back of the stage, behind the boxing ring, his mood creates the atmosphere on which the other characters feed.
Peadar’s mood is one of nostalgia and is echoed by the set. The set – complete with creaky turnstiles, worn canvas and chipped, painted signs created by Ferdia Murphy – splendidly evokes the tatty glamour of a place well-past its prime. The characters, besides Emer and Junior, feel inexplicably and inescapably part of the set which of course they are, helplessly stuck in a crumbling, small-minded family business.
The acting and set make this play but don’t go hoping to be woken out of your mulled-wine and mince pie induced stupor. You’ll be snoring in the back row.