PPP: Meetings With The Monk

Oct 17 2023 | By More

★★★★☆     Imaginative possibilities

Traverse: Tue 17 – Sat 21 Oct 2023
Review by Hugh Simpson

Meetings With The Monk, the latest Play, Pie and a Pint from Òran Mór and the Traverse, is a beautifully considered and tremendously well-staged play.

Actor, writer and musician Brian James O’Sullivan has proved himself a gloriously versatile performer in PPP and other productions; here he features in a one-hander he has written himself.

Brian James O’Sullivan in Meetings with the Monk. Pic Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Described as ‘semi-autobiographical’, the play shows Brian so affected by depression that he can see little point in living. A decision to visit an abbey frequented by his grandmother leads to encounters with the monk of the title, a man who is not quite as Brian expected him to be.

A bare outline of the play can make it sound extremely heavy going. The fact that it is apparently far more experimental than the average PPP, being full of potentially tricksy, meta-theatrical devices, perhaps makes it even more forbidding. Yet it is thoroughly accessible and not remotely as dark as it might be.

real charm

Neither is the play conventionally ‘heart-warming’ or trading in platitudes or easy answers. Despite its insistence that it will not provide any ‘profound answers’ it manages to be both thought-provoking as well as funny.

O’Sullivan’s stage persona has as much to do with the production’s success as the wit and heart of his writing. Apparently easy-going and displaying real charm, he manages to make a real connection with the audience.

Brian James O’Sullivan in Meetings with the Monk. Pic Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Plays that are deeply concerned with the nuts and bolts of making theatre can come across as exceptionally dry to those in the audience not as intimately concerned with such things as stage professionals tend to be; here, however, it is all done with a lightness of touch, a garrulous demeanour and genuine warmth.

It is deceptively clever in the way that it insists that the character of ‘Brian’ in the play is separate from Brian the writer and Brian the performer, so we are never quite sure how true individual portions of the story may be. While there can be no denying the force of the more emotional moments, it is far from heavy-handed and ultimately comes across as something of an uplifting experience.

studiedly ramshackle

The lightly-worn cleverness of the various theatrical conceits is greatly enhanced by Laila Noble’s direction. There is an apparently spontaneous, studiedly ramshackle feel to the staging which can only come from careful thought.

Similarly, Gemma Patchett and Jonny Scott’s design brings the background to the foreground, with the stage looks like a cross between a rehearsal room and an abandoned shed. Mark Gillespie’s sound design and Ross Nurney’s lighting also contribute mightily to a wonderfully coherent whole.

Brian James O’Sullivan in Meetings with the Monk. Pic Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

There are a couple of possible mis-steps. The words of Brother Felix (the monk of the title) are spoken by another actor, and various different versions have been recorded, so that O’Sullivan is never quite sure what is going to be said. While this makes sense in the context of the production, it is one distancing effect too far. O’Sullivan also manages to embody all of the other necessary characters (such as the one described as ‘clichéd therapist, more nasal in the play than in real life’) with such astuteness and humour that the use of the recordings is not necessary.

boundless possibilities

In the end, it is the humour and humanity that shines out. Apparently throwaway characters, such as that grandmother, who was banned from the abbey for stealing and who switched from Buckfast to Sanatogen because her piety took second place to thrift, are sketched out deftly.

Like so many plays that apparently show the limits and deficiencies of drama, it ends up as a hymn to its boundless possibilities. And while its wider message may not be so obviously optimistic, it is still one that resonates.

Running time: One hour (no interval)
Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge St, EH1 2ED
Tuesday 17 – Saturday 21 October 2023
Daily at 1.00 pm
Details and tickets: Book here.

Brian James O’Sullivan in Meetings with the Monk. Pic Tommy Ga-Ken Wan


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