Theatre Review: Scabs by Naomi Elster, Theatre Upstairs, Tuesday 13th August, 2013

Originally published by, Wednesday 21st August, 2013. To read the original, please click here

Big Jim on a plate: Naomi Elster’s Scabs is the latest Irish play set during the 1913 Dublin Lock- out.

In the year of its centenary, the portrayal of the 1913 Dublin Lock-out on the Irish stage continues in a way in which the historic industrial dispute draws an inescapable allegory with recent events in Irish history. Having previously featured as part of 10 Days in DublinNaomi Elster’s Scabs is given another staging in Theatre Upstairs.

While Anne Matthews’ monologue driven Lockout thoroughly explored the role of women during the 1913 Lockout and the courageous leadership shown by both James Larkin and James Connolly, Naomi Elster’s Scabs is, by comparison, a one-act play in which loyalties are tested and eventually, severed in the most cruel and brutal fashion imaginable. The action focuses on the Casey-O’Kelly’s, a young Dublin couple with one young child of ill-health, and their uncompromising stance against Audeon Kelly’s (Rob Harrington) employer.

The play begins quite similarly to Matthews’ Lockout, by immediately revising the role of women during the lockout of August 1913 – January 1914. The play’s feminist subtext is distinct from outset and offered during a spirited and impassioned monologue by Nora Casey (Áine de Siún). This feminist subtext is further strengthened Audeon and Nora’s daughter, played by nine-year-old Sarah Ninto, whose ill-health effectively forces Audeon to compromise his position as a striking worker.

Cast of Scabs, L-R: Sarah Minto, Séamus Whelan, Rob Harrington, Conor Scott

If there is one playwright who looms large in Elster’s one-act tragedy, it is Shakespeare; Elster’s laces her play with The Bard of Avon’s tragic characters. Audeon’s ambition and determination, coupled with Nora’s cold vitriol, create a vivid parallel with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. It is, however, a nuanced performance by Seamus Whelan that impresses most: channeling both Shakespeare’s Polonius and the late, great David Kelly, Whelan’s Doyler seems, at first, a peripheral, harmless character who is only active in the play to add color. His character develops unexpectedly and it’s how Whelan negotiates the transition that impresses most.

For all of its well-drawn, fully- developed characters, however, Scabs is thin on language. At times, it feels as if Elster hasn’t taken full advantage of the language of the era. A play set in Dublin during the early 20th century, surely, should have been an opportunity for the playwright to raid Terry Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno- English, or Bernard Share’s Slanguage. Instead, jaded clichés, in the context of Irish literature and Irish history, such as ”informer” and ”the cause” are trotted out. One doesn’t really get a sense that Elster, as a playwright, loves language: there’s little musicality in the dialogue of a play set in working-class Dublin in 1913.

Though very much a play of two halves, Scabs ultimately satisfies our continuing fascination with the 1913 Lock- out.

Star rating: 3 / 5
Review by: Philip Cummins
Venue: Theatre Upstairs

Wrtitten by: Naomi Elster
Directed by: Liam Halligan
Cast: Robert Harrington, Áine de Siún, Seamus Whelan, Conor Scott, Sarah Minto.

Scabs runs in The Theatre Upstairs until 24 August. 1pm performances: 20th – 24th August. 7pm performances: 22nd – 24th August. to book contact: 085 7727375 or

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