It sounds mad. Every day three elderly sisters re-enact the night their dreams were destroyed by an adolescent sexual encounter at The New Electric Ballroom. Trapped in their old house in an Irish seaside town, they dress up and play out memories in a deranged ritual that can switch at any moment between demonic violence and mundane conversation about tea. By the end of the preview the floor is strewn with cake and biscuits and the actors are kitted out in everything from silky granny pants to 50s dancing clothes, their faces smeared in lipstick.
Yes, it is mad. But this performance of Enda Walsh’s ‘The New Electric Ballroom’ is as impressive, intense and funny as it is bizarre. What sounds plain silly on paper is oddly riveting on stage. Louisa Hollway’s outstanding performance as Clara can be devastating, as when we witness her heartbreak at the hands of sexier sister Breda (Ellie Hafner). But she is equally hilarious delivering lines that unexpectedly shatter the prevailing atmosphere. When she breaks a painfully tense silence with the line, ‘there’s a terrible lull in the conversation’, one cannot help but laugh out loud.
These comic moments are refreshing. But as with the catchy marketing slogans the team have used, they barely veil the raw emotion and brutality underlying the piece. Director Phoebe Eclair-Powell’s brilliant montage of 50s music creates reoccurring themes for different characters and episodes and heightens the emotion of the play. The acting is strong, careful thought has gone into every aspect of set, costume and direction, and the Irish accents seemed (to me at least!) to be pretty impressive. Sometimes words were lost due to poor diction, although I’m sure another week’s rehearsal will iron this out.
But it is solely through Bella Hammad’s Ada that we are able to step back from the madness. As the only one who leaves the house, she is able to be both a part of the ritual and see it from a distance, giving the audience this perspective too. Through her beautifully delivered monologue about the beach, we see the bitterness she feels at having her life destroyed by events that occurred before she was born.
Yet it is she who reminds the sisters to perform their stories, giving them their cues, telling Clara to ‘slow down’, and holding the props. The piece is thoroughly aware of its own theatricality, but that is partly what makes it so all-enveloping for the audience. Even the outside world is shown only through the eyes of the unhinged fishmonger Patsy (Ollie Mann), the one visitor allowed to enter the house. As a result, we end up not really knowing what is real or what is imagined.
It can get frustrating. There are moments when I had no idea what was going on, but this is something you just have to embrace. As Eclair-Powell explains, ‘I want the audience to at every moment be thinking – what on earth is going to happen next?’ She definitely got her wish. So if you have an open mind and want to watch a powerful piece of theatre (or perhaps you just want to see some food thrown around), get yourself down to the Burton Taylor Studio, Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30pm.