FRIDAY, MAY 3, 2024

Lily-Kate Hearns, Éabha Hayes, Íde Simpson and Juliet Hill in 'Cailíní'. Photo: Martina Perrone

An intense, innovative exploration of siblinghood's complexities within uniquely heightened emotive pressure, Íde Simpson and Beth Strahan's Cailíní, co-starring Simpson and directed by Strahan, earns consistent attention, sporadic laughter and even occasional tears from a packed audience in the Naughton Studio at Belfast's Lyric Theatre by being as heartfelt and honest as it is smart and forthright. Its intelligent direction, detailed set design and powerful levels of performance bring out the realities of potentially relatable and discomforting situations both truthfully and openly.

The title alone reads as contradictory - Cailíní, in Irish, is the plural of "cailín", defined as not only a young and unmarried woman, but also, troublingly, as a "maid" or worse, "useful thing". Its meaning speaks to a life with possibilities as liberating as they are lonely, as bold as they are burdening and as determined as they are dehumanising - entirely appropriate for the "battle of the souls" that we will witness amongst four sisters and one half-sister reunited by the illness of their father.

Those sisters are the Mahons – Úna (Simpson), Katherine (Lily Kate Hearns), Annie (Éabha Hayes), and Clodagh (Megan Doherty), later joined by half-sister Mairead (Juliet Hill) while Clodagh's boyfriend Eamonn Brown (Seán McDermott) suffers on the sidelines, or doesn't, depending on your point-of-view. What this union presents us with, like the finest fictional instances of suddenly connected not-so-similar yet not-so-different people do, is repeated opportunities for clarity to bubble to the surface, however hard-hitting the consequences may be, through action and conversation – it's more a fragmented character piece than a straightforward narrative, and it's so much stronger for being so.

Cailíní unveils its characterisation distinctively and commendably. While it initially seems that Simpson's Úna will emerge with the richest arc – and she is indeed a force of nature, someone who appears to mask fear and unease with energy and loudness – Simpson and Strahan work hard and well to bring depth and spark to everyone. For example, Lily Kate Hearns is fantastic in battling to hide her clear disappointment in being seen as what you might call the Monica Geller of the siblings, the person one turns to for a job to be done. It's apparent here that a cry for help or being openly expressive is seen as a weakness, which is why the outbursts we do see are no shock to the system – they come across as more a consequence of either holding back over a long period of time or having to confront the "support bubble" being burst, support that once appeared so easy to take for granted.

This is where Megan Doherty, Éabha Hayes and Seán McDermott all come into their own in convincingly relaying the vast library of emotions in the play. The arrival of Juliet Hill's Mairead, from Paris, adds a subtext of class which strengthens the scenario further – whatever her present intent it is difficult, even impossible, to not see her as someone who has had the luxury of being able to distance oneself from much of the pain that can only be really experienced from being up close and personal.

It is as if Strahan, Simpson and their talented ensemble are repeatedly relishing the challenge of maintaining a generally strong level of empathy throughout, and it is to their credit that they maintain it very well. It's also highly laudable that Cailíní's primary innovations, such as presenting two conversations at once rather than focusing on one, enrich the scenario rather than detract from it – Emmett Brady Dunne's very well designed set, Hayden Kline’s sound and Conor Bustos' lighting help ensure that the relevant expression comes through appropriately. Therefore the play is not only something of a written marvel, but a technical one - a strong example of visual and performative storytelling where metaphorical boundaries are broken down in the name of finding out even more about what makes a particular family tick.

Simon Fallaha

Cailíní runs at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, until Sunday May 5. For more information, and tickets, click here.