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She Wins All the Races

Mad Alice Theatre, in association with Action Transport and Queen’s Hall Arts.

Gala Theatre Durham, 6 October 2016

There seems to have been a plethora, recently, of one woman retrospective autobiographical shows.  Heartfelt reminiscence shared with an audience to make some sense of Life, with the help of a costume rail and back- projection of grainy old photographs and Super-8 cine film.

The format is legit, but has to work hard to engage an audience. Really hard. Because mostly, it’s too personal and just ends up being soggily self-indulgent. 

But last night I saw Shelley O’Brien in Mad Alice’s ‘She Wins All the Races’ at the Gala studio (a difficult space, at the best of times, as it was never designed to be much more than a conference-cum-meeting room).

Shelley tells the poignant story of her childhood growing up with two brothers, one Older, one Younger, who both – bizarrely and against ridiculous odds – are born with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. A terminal condition which results, inevitably, in death in your mid-teens.

It’s a true story, and it’s peopled with real life characters.  Although Shelley changes her own name to Belinda, her best friend Angela is in the show, and her Aunty Val,  and her Mam, and her Dad, and Father D the family priest – and of course her brothers, ‘Older’, and ‘Younger’,  each represented by a fragile coloured balloon, lightly tethered and weighted to the ground with  thin string. 

But unlike many others in the genre, this show is far from self-indulgent.  It’s poignant and terribly, terribly sad but it’s also funny, and joyful and playful, and captures absolutely a child’s view of a frightening and incomprehensible adult world. The writing, staging, design and direction are all excellent.  We are on a roller coaster of emotions, swooping with joy as Belinda bounces enthusiastically on her trampoline and stunned with grief as slowly, slowly, she lowers the first balloon – Older – into its waiting white box, and prepares the second white box for Younger,  who remains, for a while, achingly alone centre stage.

I have known Shelley O’Brien for many years and have always admired her determination to pursue an acting career.  I knew that she had a degree in Biochemistry and had marvelled at the rather curious disconnect of her life choices. What I hadn’t known was that she had studied Biochemistry in order to find a cure for Muscular Dystrophy. But, as we learn through this play, even Wonder Woman is foiled in her attempt to beat this disease. So perhaps, if you can’t find a cure, then the very next best thing is to make a play.  A very, very good play.

Jill Cole

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