A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, Quay Theatre, The Lowry, February 4 2016
The debut novel by Eimear McBride was a literary cause celebre when it was first published back in 2013, having first been rejected by a number of publishers. McBride has said it took six months to write and nine years to be published. Galley Beggar Press eventually took a chance on it, it garnered many, many positive reviews and eventually found itself re-published by Faber. Her second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, is set for publication later this year.
For the uninitiated, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing was a Joycian stream of consciousness, an undiluted poetic outpouring that sought to convey the life of a girl from birth to womanhood, the first lines of which – “For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say.” – pretty much determine whether it’s the kind of book you’re likely to persevere with or not. This is not an easy read, in some senses, but for those not deterred by the searing individuality of McBride’s voice there are rewards enough to bring out the literary zealot in you.
The Lowry’s Quay Theatre teems with those converts to McBride. Annie Ryan’s adaptation (her husband gave her the book and she sat up reading through the night, knowing by the close that here was a work she had to get her teeth into) is simple in many ways: a young actress, a stage, some discrete lighting, occasional background electronica. In some ways, it is all about the words. (When Ryan was talking with McBride about the play, McBride said, “We’re inside of her head, so it is very important that we never see her.” “Yes. Yes,” Ryan nodded, “But we are going to have to cast her!”) And yet, at the same time, it is all about the actress: Aoife Duffin.
Duffin is still probably best known for playing the part of Trisha in Chris O’Dowd’s Moone Boy sitcom, but she has appeared extensively in both film and theatre. You don’t need to know this, though. A single viewing of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is enough to leave you knowing here is an actress who is destined for great things. For the better part of 90 minutes, she stands alone on stage and performs the book in a way that recalled the famous Dickens’ line from Our Mutual Friend appropriated by TS Eliot in the The Wasteland: ‘[s]he do the police in different voices.’ Not that A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing has any police in it, but it has a number of other characters and Duffin switches smartly from one to another in a way that keeps the audience aware of just who is talking at any one time.
There is the girl herself, of course. Her mother, a lady left to raise her children single-handedly. Her grandfather, a sombre, churchy sort whose presence makes you realise that the girl’s mother had probably never had it easy her whole life. Her brother, whose struggles with brain cancer form a kind of arc to the broader piece. Her uncle (brilliantly delineated with a cheeky grin, a tipped head and hands constantly in pockets), who grooms her and abuses her and comes (we think) to suffer, as a result of what he did, even if only out of misguided love. The auntie. The doctor who tells them her brother’s time is almost up. Various schoolkids who suck up to her brother and then seek to mock him. Her best friend when she moves to London. The brutish man who eventually violently rapes her. Duffin distinctly brings all of these to vivid life.
As some of these characters may suggest, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is pretty dark. Cancer, incest and rape is hardly the stuff of a light-hearted frolic. And yet there is a lot of humour here, both obvious (a short scene in which the girl learns to swear for the first time) and subtle (the various faults of all of the men she throws herself into the arms of), revealed both through action and, as you might expect, through language. For anyone worried that a one-woman show with a debt to Joyce might be difficult (as Maxine Peake’s recent performance in The Skriker, at the Royal Exchange, was, at times), worry not. You surrender to the performance and you are taken on a ride and as you acclimatise to the rhythm and the patterns through which the tale is told, you clearly see the story before you.
Now, given that it is pretty unrelenting, there are times when you may glance at your watch in order to gauge how long there is to go – but that isn’t because the play has longueurs. Quite the opposite. The pitch does shift, though, and there are moments (Duffin rolls upon the stage as if it was grass) where you can feel the audience palpably breathe out. And the performance obviously takes its toll on Duffin. As she goes to take two bows after the show has finished, she looks visibly drained, hardly able to raise a smile for the audience. Such is the immersive nature of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing you can’t help but leave the theatre feeling sympathy, for the character and the actress.
But it’s a remarkable piece and a magnificent feat of ventriloquy. You don’t have to have read the book to understand and follow and enjoy the play (although it does help to have an idea of what to expect, we think). Just know that you’ll see something truly special. And in Duffin you may see an early performance by someone who is going to go on to be a world beating star or we’ll eat our metaphorical hat.