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Theatre in Review: Pondling (GĂșna Nua and Ramblinman/59E59)

Genevieve Hulme-Beaman. Photo: Paul McCarthy

The instant that Genevieve Hulme-Beaman walks on stage and speaks the opening words of the solo show Pondling ("I had my new shoes on. They were my new shiny black ones. Fresh and shiny from a shiny green and white box. And I was wearing them with pride."), it is clear that she means business and the business is unsavory. Ostensibly playing Madeleine, a young Irish girl on the edge of puberty, she employs a series of booming chest tones that can probably be heard in Queens. Even more unsettling is her manner of speaking, which seems derived from women's magazines of the mid-20th century, romance novels, and several of Bette Davis' weaker films. Describing herself riding her "My Little Pony" bike, she says, "And as I peddled along on my 'my little pony' bicycle, the wind catching my hair and my lashes, my chin high and my eyes smiling, I took quick, quiet glances for myself down to my feet and decided that cream tights were definitely the right choice, that they did accentuate my raven black, silky, shiny shoes." Describing the day she met the boy on whom she has a consuming crush, she says, "He had beautiful hair, it was brown and floppy. It framed the features of his now-stubbled face with a certain kind of manly sensitivity." All this from a girl who is pushing the age of 13.

More often, Madeleine's monologues end with intimations of brutality. She lives on a farm with her grandfather and brother, noting, "In the evenings my grandfather and brother would sit in the study and have long conversations about poetry and killing animals -- and I would listen." She treats the inhabitants of the farm's coop has her confidants: "I would tell them everything and they would listen, they would keep my secrets and stories locked away in their little chicken hearts until the day when they became soup." Clearly, nobody knows what to make of her. Cutting her hair to resemble Princess Diana, she shows off her new look to Johnno, the boy of her dreams. Looking her over, she says, "he said something very strange about me fighting with a lawn mower." Meanwhile, she actively loathes Johnno's "stupid, long-armed girlfriend." Madeleine is not a little girl you want to cross. Picking up a yellow flower, she imagines it has magical killing powers, and fantasizes blowing up all sorts of annoying animals and people. Then there's the matter of the tansy ragwort, a plant she feeds to one of her grandfather's cows, killing it, largely because it offended her by defecating in her presence.

In her extreme sensitivity, vivid imagination, and violent hatreds, Madeleine is one for the books, Frankie Addams from The Member of the Wedding crossed with the evil Rhoda Penmark from The Bad Seed. The script, also by Hulme-Beaman, sends Madeleine whirling through a series of incidents until she meets the older, married Ann-Marie, whom, she imagines, will become her "very own personal mentor in glamour and beauty and my best friend." She befriends Ann-Marie's daughter and is soon being taking home for playdates -- which quickly leads to mayhem and a disastrous finale.

Madeleine is a character that the late Ruth Rendell might have imagined, and watching her spiral out of control has a certain fascination; her almost insanely precocious monologue is loaded with hair-raising details. Watching with envy when Johnno kisses his girlfriend, she notes how, as their mouths part, they leave between them "a silver saliva string of love." She insists that she only wears dresses, "playful denim, joyful tartan, or a sombre green. Velvet for romance, jersey for fun, and white cotton with flower embellishments for delicate, elegant innocence. I was stylish, and I made no exception while I was on the farm." And then there's the nearly indescribable moment when this barely pubescent young lady bursts into her own version of Edith Piaf's "If You Love Me."

But where another writer might have more lucidly fleshed out Madeleine's history or placed her more firmly in her surrounding environment, Hulme-Beaman piles on the tics and mannerisms, making her heroine increasingly hard to take. And then there's the matter of her grotesquely overscaled performance, which would seem too large in a midsize Broadway house and comes across as positively assaultive in 59E59's tiny Theatre C. I especially can't forget -- no matter how hard I try -- her enervating laugh, a cross between a horse's neigh and an Indian war whoop. Clearly, the director, Paul Meade, has been unable or unwilling to get a less assaultive performance from his leading lady. Even at a running time of 70 minutes, I found myself wondering when we might be released from this one-person asylum.

The production, part of the 1st Irish Festival, has a minimal, but workable, set and lighting by Colm McNally, and an amusing sound design, by Osgar Dukes and Denis Clohessy, which underlines Madeleine's fantasies with either overwrought bits of orchestral music or aggressively serene snatches of Muzak.

Clearly, Hulme-Beaman is a talent and you have to appreciate the nerve behind Pondling, but as it stands, it is one of the more exhausting entertainments around. It might be twice as good at half the intensity. When Madeleine finally meets her fate, you may find you don't feel anything -- except gratitude at being sprung from the theatre. -- David Barbour

(14 September 2015)

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