Continuing their re-discovery season, Finborough Theatre presents Birthright by T. C. Murray. Written in 1910 and staged at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin that same year, it was a huge success. Set around the same time in rural Ireland, a farming family comes to conflict over the different ways the two sons are being drawn in their own lives.
Shane, the second son, has an innate talent for farm work, often finding solutions to farm challenges more swiftly than his father, Bat. Yet, despite this, the farm and its birthright were never destined to be his. He has arranged to emigrate to America. On this particular evening, we find ourselves at the family table, where a freshly delivered trunk rests, symbolising the second son’s future far away – a “spare,” borrowing a phrase from recent UK terminology.
The local who brought the trunk also brings news – Hugh, the eldest son, has just won a gold medal in hurling, captaining the local team to victory. This would normally be a huge source of pride not just to the family but to neighbours and friends but not in this case. Combined with some of Hugh’s other interests, this makes him soft in Bat’s eyes. The news of this win fuels Bat’s simmering rage and shows the loathing he holds for his eldest.
The situation takes a dramatic turn when Hugh receives a written note from the local parish priest, a near-deity figure in rural Ireland of those days. The note requests Hugh’s aid in overseeing the visiting team’s evening party. This seemingly innocuous request is the last straw for Bat, and it drives him over the edge to find Hugh is not at home. Bat forces Shane to change the details on the trunk. Hugh will be sent to America on Thursday and Shane will stay to work the farm and take over Hugh’s birthright.
As the tension boils over, the cast really steps up their game. The raw and intense rage that Pádraig Lynch brings to patriarch Bat Morrissey is scarily impressive. Rosie Armstrong does excellent work showcasing Maura’s dread terror of Bat’s reaction and the desperate hope that she can stop it happening. Neither brother appears to understand each other, they are strangers to each other. Grief and grievance overflow.
When the inevitable conflict erupts, the fight direction also deserves credit, the limited space of the Finborough Theatre, combined with a bustling set, must have posed a challenge but it results in a wonderful, choreographed fight scene.
Running now at just 60 minutes, Birthright feels tight, the script nicely paced with conflict brewing slowly but then becoming more and more inevitable. The only point which feels slightly rushed is the ending. It isn’t quite obvious from the very sudden conclusion that the story has ended, and I felt slightly disconnected. The script sidesteps the expected conflict and moves in another direction, this works well and the little time we have spent with the Morrissey family is enough to let us read into their lives a little. The intense performances by the cast and the gripping central story help make Birthright yet another gem deserving of rediscovery. https://finboroughtheatre.co.uk/production/birthright/
Reviewer: Dave Smith
Reviewed: 7th September 2023
North West End UK Rating: