The Blackwater Lightship Review: Colm Tóibín’s terminal illness story becomes an emotional crucible

Set in an Irish kitchen, a family is forced to confront division in the face of an incurable illness: Colm Tóibín’s Booker-nominated 1990s life novel is adapted into a play Classic Irish style. Declan (David Rawle), in the later stages of HIV/Aids, returns to his grandmother Dora’s (Ruth McCabe) home in Co Wexford as an end-of-time pilgrimage.

Helen’s sister (Rachel O’Byrne) and mother Lily (Karen Ardiff), bitterly estranged, are shooting at each other. Declan’s two gay friends, architects Larry (Donncha O’Dea) and Paul (Will O’Connell), a diplomat, also visit. Their family-like nursing care for Declan is a rebuke. In this emotionally devastating space, Helen is forced to deal with all the silences that reverberate within their family.

Adapted by David Horan for Verdant Productions, the play begins with an entertaining cultural clash as gay men bring mundane cosmology to a rural setting. Dora has the superpowers of a 1990s Irish granny who theoretically disapproves of homosexuality but happily embraces gay men.

She has two cats, Charlie and Garret, named after the taoisigh who dominated politics at the time. Animals are invisible presences that make occasional meows. Ireland is depicted as both remote and instantly recognizable. Sneaky neighbor Essie (Billie Traynor), with a perfect Wexford accent, brings all the baddies of Ireland into the room with her sly probes.


Karen Ardiff, Rachel O’Byrne, Ruth McCabe and David Rawle in The Blackwater Lightship. Ros Kavanagh’s photo

Maree Kearns’ design is a classic Irish kitchen, a diagonal staircase in the back that takes advantage of the towering height of the Gaiety stage. The ambient beam of the distant lighthouse adds to the visual beauty of Kevin Smith’s elegant lighting arrangement. Dora’s house, perched on a cliff, is in danger of falling into the sea. It’s all just metaphors.

Things darken considerably in Act 2 as Declan’s condition worsens. Impressive value lies in catharsis; Helen’s emotional oven baked, also baked the audience. This is an image of Ireland not disappearing but crumbling. It’s also a tear-jerker, executed with skill by a good cast. HIV is now treatable and not the devastating diagnosis it once was. And as for being Irish, there’s still no cure for that.

Part of the Dublin Theater Festival: Gaiety Theatre, Dublin
Running until Sunday, October 2 The Blackwater Lightship Review: Colm Tóibín’s terminal illness story becomes an emotional crucible

Fry Electronics Team

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