Spend the Night with Irene [by James Wenley]
Irene McMunn’s Christmas cheer has been charming audiences in small venues across the country.
So much so, that director Stephen Papps has lost track of how many seasons the one woman show has had. This return season at TAPAC is the first time he’s seen the show since March. Impressively, it’s the third Auckland season after its debut at the Musgrove Theatre this time last year, a testament to its audience appeal, and the performance of actor/playwright Yvette Parsons.
The Christmas themed Silent Night has played both during ‘on’ and ‘off’ seasons, and while its strength of character and message is relevant at all times, I suspect at this time of the year it gains its extra poignancy.
TAPAC has been decked out with cabaret style tables and seating. The touring set, a homely interior, is raised high on rostra for audience visibility. Pink, in all its shades, is the overwhelming colour in this unit; the couch, floral wall paper and Irene’s dress are awash in it. As a space it tells much that we’ll need to know about the character, full of individual touches and flourishes, from the displays of Prince Charles and Diana wedding memorabilia, to the beautiful doll sitting on the couch.
The first we hear of Irene is her booming voice as she belts out her own unique version of the perennial Silent Night. It’s an instant charmer, her trait of bursting into carols welcome interludes throughout the show, and later touching expression of emotion. She appears onstage, and begins to chat away at us. We are warmly eased into her world as she freely espouses on different topics as they occur to her, flitting from one train of thought to another. The Chrisco’s hamper has newly arrived, and she takes us through an inventory (“That’s a good brand”). It’s Christmas day, and she’s waiting for her guests to arrive for a tea party.
The initial impression that Yvette’s Irene makes is one of an eccentric, jolly, comic creation that we will enjoy spending the next hour with. She talks us through some wonderfully silly preparations she is making for her party, like how to make a Xmas tree out of toast, which see demonstrates. Her conversation contains some sparkling and gently funny turns of phrase (“This is a conversation piece”, “You wouldn’t read about it…”). She’s like the Nana you wish you had, full of enthusiasm for the season.
If this characterisation continued throughout the piece, I would probably go home with a warm smile on my face. However, as Irene continues to talk away, she slowly reveals personal, intimate details and depths that make us consider her anew, turning a comic character into a rich and complex character study.
We learn about her personal tragedies and loss – her deceased husband Len and his post-war experience, and the death of her brother Trevor in the Christmas Eve Tangiwai Disaster. These sorts of details are dropped in amongst her other eclectic topics, often told as matter of fact understatement. As she puts up the brave battler face, we feel and emote for her. It’s a clever scriptural reveal, our care and affection for the character is earnt. In two key moments, Yvette movingly draws into the memory and interior of Irene, displaying her real grief and pain about the men taken away from her. But she refuses to succumb to her emotions for too long, moving on with a determined “Anyway…”, and onto the next “conversation piece”. It’s a very tricky tonal tightrope of pathos and bathos that Yvette as performer and writer has set for herself, but so invested is she in the character that its feel completely natural for us watching.
“Guests will be trickling in soon” says Irene to reassure herself. She’s expecting the Reverand Carlisle, and her daughter Elaine, and she’s gone to an awful lot of trouble with those food preparations. Still, they do not arrive. We become all too aware of her loneliness, and the sadness of being alone on Christmas. Even her cat Monty won’t come when he’s called. For Irene, who was one of 14 children, it must be overwhelming, though she’d never admit it. I become aware too of the dramatic situation, the solo character, keeping busy and breezy by talking to an imagined audience – it’s a thoroughly depressing state of affairs.
But Irene remains chipper, ever hopeful the door bell will ring.
Silent Night is a beautiful play tinged with sadness. For the audience, it connects christmas with the importance, above all else, of family. It’s with both a warm smile on my face, and a heavy heart, that I return home.
And to find out if Irene’s guests do end up arriving, you’ll just have to head along to TAPAC. After all, Irene is a delightful lady and deserves the company.
Silent Night is presented by Pandora Productions and plays at TAPAC until 18 December. For more information see TAPAC.
Read Sharu's interview with Yvette Parsons.