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‘Portia Coughlan’ at the Almeida Theatre: Review

Marina Carr’s disturbing yet moving tragedy was first performed in 1996. Now it's back at Islington’s Almeida theatre, directed by Carrie Cracknell, and is arguably one of the best ways to spend a rainy October London evening.

Somewhere in a rural Irish village, it is Portia Coughlan’s 30th birthday. She is a woman who has everything most people want, yet is falling apart because of the one thing she’s lost and cannot get over - her twin brother. Coincidentally, it is also the 15th anniversary of his death and, recently, she has started to see his ghost.

Alison Oliver as Portia Coughlan. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

The play opens in a regular-looking living room, with the exception of the back wall which has been torn down, giving the audience the impression of gazing out onto a rocky landscape encompassed by a brick wall. From the very first scene, the audience is being haunted alongside Portia; the ghost of her brother Gabriel (Archee Aitch Wylie) appears and drifts off in the background, always singing some ghostly yet beautiful song. Maimuna Memon, the musician and lyricist, nailed the play’s haunting tone, aided by the way Gabriel is lit in a similarly ghostly yet almost angelic manner. Although the play’s other characters don't see him, in a way, he lives on through Portia, as her obsession with him affects all around her.

On the whole, Alison Oliver’s portrayal of Portia is the best thing about the play; she captures the extremes and subtleties of grief, anger and borderline insanity in a way that keeps the audience fixated. Even better, it is all done in her gorgeous Irish accent, adding yet another layer of authenticity and emotion. Oliver had me seething in anger, chilled in fear and at one point genuinely crying, all in the space of just over two hours.

Despite being an abusive, toxic character, Oliver somehow convinces us into sympathising with Portia, into understanding her point of view. One moment, Portia is broken down crying at her mother’s knees, the next trying to strangle her. In fact, the themes which work best throughout are those of blood, kinship and family ties, largely thanks to some truly emotive pieces of acting from Mairead McKingley and Mark O’Halloran. These dynamics are as complex and murky as in real life, or even more so. Aside from Portia's twisted and complicated relationship with her dead twin, the most tantalising plot lines, for me, were found in Portia's relationships with her parents and her sons. In trying to prevent the controlling, suffocating relationship she claims to have had with her parents, she deliberately cuts herself off from her young boys, who are never actually seen, though we are told they miss her.

Alison Oliver as Portia and Charlie Kelly as Damus. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

Another factor that kept the audience on the edge of their seat was that barely any of the characters can be trusted - least of all Portia. Her alcoholism, the way she obsesses over the past, and how she sees, hears, and feels her dead brother all call into question her sanity. That’s where another interesting aspect of the play comes in; the whole cast really work well together as a unit to create the sense of a close knit community passing gossip and spreading rumours. The hearsay and half truths effectively build up intrigue about the past and increase our interest in exactly how and why Portia is like she is and why she does what she does. They create a layer of folklore which seems to fit the setting of a small Irish village.

My only real regret with the play as a whole was that, aside from Portia herself, it felt like many characters had more to give or could have been fleshed out more. Specifically, Portia’s best friend Stacia, who was humorously and authentically portrayed by Sadbh Malin. She was essentially the only person who genuinely had Portia's best interests in mind, without any family ties keeping them together, despite seemingly being second-best to Portia in many ways. I would have been interested to know why the two were so close, or whether Stacia felt any resentment towards her friend. Portia's husband too - the long-suffering, golden retriever, slightly useless husband, Raphael. As the richest man in the county who presumably has full control over his life, why does he stay with Portia? Is he just there to show how automatically desirable this woman is even in her most vicious, angry and brutally honest moments?

Or perhaps that's the point - none of these other characters are Portia, none are Gabriel, so why should they receive more attention than necessary? That’s a question I’ve not quite worked out the answer to.

All in all, I've not felt so immersed in a play, or so invested in a lead character in a long time. The writing, especially some of Portia's lines, does occasionally feel overly prosaic and somewhat breaks the sense of realism and the ending, though well-tied together, is quite abrupt. Yet, these aspects did not dampen my enjoyment in the least.

And it's fairly likely you'll catch me at the Almeida again in the next few weeks, back for another fix of the tragedy of Portia Coughlan.

Portia Coughlan is running at the Almeida theatre until November 17th. For more information and tickets click here:


Edited by Georgia Gibson, Theatre Editor.


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