Jacques Tati's 1967 film Playtime was set in an absurd new Paris of concrete and glass. The city of Georges-Eugene Haussmann and Gustave Eiffel appeared only, as it were, by accident, caught as a fleeting reflection in the instant that a glass door opened, lost again once it had closed.
Tati's brilliant work returned to my mind as I watched Stella Feehily's new play, O Go My Man. She presents us with a new Ireland. The familiar landmarks are absent. Her characters do not talk about football or horse racing. None is a poet or novelist. The words Catholic and Protestant are never used. Nobody debates abortion. Only the politics of international poverty seems to be of any concern. There are no scenes in pubs (though one character has a problem with the demon drink, as if through him we were momentarily glimpsing a mirrored image of our familiar concept of the Emerald Isle). Feehily's abandonment of all the Irish cliches is a great relief.
In her Ireland, it takes five minutes to buy a coffee because of the dazzling choice between frappaccino, mochaccino and the rest. But the service is surly, and the Dublin airport coffee shop closes capriciously at any hour depending on the mood of the staff. In this new Ire- land, celebrity rules. A television chef sees career advantage in associating himself with the plight of Darfur. Only then do the media take the issue seriously, and scramble to broadcast his opinion as though he were a politician. The new Irish economy is sustained by immigrant labour. When the photographer Ian Fenton (played by Paul Hickey) tries to shed light on that underworld, he finds the blacks too frightened to be caught on camera.
An ambitious good-looker with a passion for casual sex, like Elsa Ruane (Denise Gough), can cut through to the top like a hot knife through Kerrygold. She views monogamy with contempt. "O go my man" is her sneering anagram for it.
That might make Elsa sound like a destructive force. She is not. When she first encounters (and therefore first has sex with) Ian, Sarah (Susan Lynch) has already made it clear that she no longer loves him and she is clearly having an affair. Ian's momentary resistance to Elsa on the grounds that he should be faithful to Sarah seems to us deluded, given what we know about the shipwrecked relationship. It is a relief when he succumbs to the inevitable.
The play is full of characters whose lives are on hold. Sarah cannot get an acting job. Ian lacks the drive to make anything of his photography beyond the occasional commission for a portrait or advertisement. Neil (Ewan Stewart) is traumatised and boozy from reporting the Darfur massacres for television. His wife, Zoe (Aoife McMahon), is capsized by his decision to leave her for another woman. Their teenage daughter Maggie (Gemma Reeves) runs away from home and teeters on the brink of prostitution. In her ruth-less drive for fame Elsa sees opportuni- ties to exploit these losers, but somehow, as she uses them, she helps their lives to move forward.
Feehily is a talented writer. Her intelligent if hapless characters are fast talkers. They speak a modern vernacular and communicate in fragments, yet they are articulate. Her dialogue is wonderfully authentic. She portrays the breakdown of the relationships between Ian and Sarah and Neil and Zoe particularly well, and captures the morose teenager, too.
The play is often hilarious. When Sarah unleashes a savage list of reasons why she no longer loves Ian and cannot abide his company any more, he responds, hopefully: "So you don't hate me. Thank you." The bitchery between Sarah, Zoe and Elsa is splendid.
It is an earthy piece. Sarah sheds her clothes. She pleasures Ian with a hand thrust into his trousers. Ian and Elsa have sex on stage, with messy results. The young Maggie sings a song of breathtaking crudeness. Despite a more or less happy ending, the play is unsentimental. I liked the description of Neil - who has a social conscience the size of a planet and is plagued by nightmares of what he has seen in Darfur - as an atrocity tourist.
Feehily makes charming departures into the surreal. A charac- ter called Alice (Mossie Smith) appears variously as a waitress, chambermaid and cleaner. On each occasion she upbraids the characters with a stream of vituperation on the stupidity of their private lives, like a foul-mouthed Greek chorus. When Sarah attends an audition for a cereal commercial, the director pours invective on her, and she has the satisfaction of shooting him with her finger.
An enthusiastic cast produces a lively evening, with Gough and Hickey outstanding. The director, Max Stafford-Clark, ensures a good pace, and designs by Es Devlin move us slickly from one scene to the next. Feehily's text, available at the theatre, reads well. Seeing O Go My Man won't change your life, but it's good crack.
Booking at the Royal Court to 11 February on 020 7565 5000. For tour dates, visit www.outofjoint.co.uk