The Secrets of Primrose Square
Review by Brian Carroll
Run time: 1 hour 23 minutes
Fifteen-year-old Smelly Melly lies. All the time. She’s very good at it. And getting better. Or so she thinks.
Melissa lies about her mom, Susan. She tells the world that Susan is fine. Melissa and Susan are fine.
In point of fact, Susan is far from fine. Evenings she lurks outside a teenage boy’s window. When asked, she tells police that the boy is responsible for the death of her other daughter, Ella. In daytime, Susan is abusing Xanax. When she isn’t passed out at home, she’s abusing a junior pharmacist who is not allowed to refill her expired Xanax prescription.
Melissa lies to her father who is serving on a military posting in Lebanon. Melissa tells him that she and Susan are fine. She doesn’t tell him that she’s relieved that he’s away so that he and Susan don’t fight every night, as they have since Ella’s death.
Worst of all, Melissa lies to herself, telling herself that she’s good at lying. For instance, Susan forgets to pick up Melissa in the rain at a football pitch that is two bus rides away from home. Melissa lies to her best friend about Susan’s whereabouts. But Sam, her friend’s mother, sees through the lie and insists on driving Melissa home. Ultimately Melissa can’t keep her story straight and tells another lie that contradicts the first one.
Sam isn’t the only one to take notice. Susan’s septuagenarian neighbour Jayne notices too. But Jayne and Sam are at a loss for how to help.
Until Susan hits a moment of crisis.
At this point I hear you ask, “Can it get any worse?” To tell you would be to reveal spoilers. However, author and playwright Claudia Carroll (no relation) quotes Eleanor Roosevelt: “A woman is a bit like a teabag. You don’t know how strong she is until dipped in hot water.” Susan and Melissa are in very hot water indeed.
So too is their neighbour, Jayne. Her son, Jason, and daughter-in-law are trying to sell Jayne’s house out from under her and pocket the proceeds. But everyone underestimates Jayne. She has two assets. First is her quick wit with which she tells the truth. Second she has a new online beau from Florida who arrives to put a spring in her step (so to speak) and to ruin Jason’s financial plans.
In one scene, an audience member gasped in horror reacting to an action on stage. There is no intermission to allow you to escape.
Irish drama can be depressingly grim, and this play is no exception. Just when you think things can’t get worse, the play turns even darker. In one scene, an audience member gasped in horror reacting to an action on stage. There is no intermission to allow you to escape.
So why did Robin Guy (Three Sisters Theatre Company) and John P. Kelly (SevenThirty Productions) choose this play for a world premiere live performance? A clue may be the novel on which the play is based. During COVID lockdown, the book was one of the top ten downloaded books in Ireland and the UK. Melissa, Susan and Jayne are ordinary women who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. Presumably Carroll’s readers were so impressed that they were telling their friends they had to read the novel.
Kudos to Robin Guy for her portrayal of Susan’s grief and descent into substance abuse. She’s really stepped out of the box for this one. Rachel Eugster’s Jayne is playful in her openness to life. Her subtle comedic delivery is a relief. Adding complexity to the role, Jayne becomes a fierce adoptive mama bear to Melissa.
But the fulcrum of this production is Isabelle Kabbouchi’s portrayal of teenage Melissa. Her performance starts out tentatively, reflecting Melissa’s discomfort in her own skin. But then, in a pivotal scene with Susan, Kabbouchi’s Melissa delivers a blistering performance that rocks the theatre space.
Director John P. Kelly saw potential in the script and in these three actors. He has deftly brought that potential to fruition at The Gladstone. While the script starts out slowly, the more I think about this production of The Secrets of Primrose Square, the more impressed I am with it. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to meet these “ordinary” women.
The Secrets of Primrose Square by Three Sisters Theatre Company and SevenThirty Productions is playing at the Gladstone Theatre till Saturday June 11th at 7:30PM, Friday, Saturday and Tuesday to Saturday. Matinees at 2:30PM, Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets range from $21–36 online and at the box office.