Those who don’t believe in hell should hasten to Frank McGuinness’s play, which premiered in Liverpool last year as a terrifying solo performance from Leanne Best.
The play is a descent into unconditional despair as chirpy scouse heroine Sal is derailed by the accidental death of her daughter. Sal narrates her tale from a desolate cottage off the west coast of Ireland, but it all starts on Merseyside, with her Kerry-born parents supporting her amid the usual routines of pet rabbits and parental defiance. Her life dissolves into the less prosaic routines of press conference, funeral and bloodlust following the tragedy. All the while, Sal agitatedly strikes matches, comforting herself with the smell of sulphur.
This is an incredibly intense piece of writing from an author who, in plays such as ‘Baglady’, has made the exploration of emotional and psychological extremity his forte.
The power of McGuinness’s work is reinforced here by Lia Williams’s relentless production, which admits no latecomers and incarcerates its audience as surely as it does its heroine. It starts amid relative sunshine and blue skies glimpsed beyond the battered door of Colin Richmond’s spartan stage design, but steadily dims as it descends into an enveloping stygian gloom.
Best, meanwhile, is a proud, handsome and vigorous Sal, brimming with blarney. But just as her simple floral frock starts to resemble an apron and then an institutional smock, so she becomes increasingly witchy and disturbed. It is a high intensity and sinuous performance, ever more hectoring the spectators as her eyeballs drill defiantly into those around the stage.
The result is sometimes too much – awkward, embarrassing and uncomfortable. But she solicits piteous gasps and groans from the audience and there’s a palpable sense of relief when it’s over. As Mephistopheles says in ‘Doctor Faustus’ ‘why this is hell nor am I out of it’.