Melissa Blease reviews Claudio Tolcachir’s The Omission of the Family Coleman, on at Ustinov Studio until 27 April

What would be the pitch for The Omission of the Family Coleman? A soft-focus Angela’s Ashes, perhaps, or the bridge that connects Roddy Doyle to Marian Keyes? There are echoes of Shameless, flashbacks to Carla Lane’s vintage TV sitcom Bread and reflections of Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies within this quasi-farcical family melodrama too, all muddled up with strong associations to Argentinian film director Alejandro Doria’s dark 1985 comedy Waiting for the Hearse (Esperando la Carroza)

While the last drama in the Ustinov’s season of premieres from the Americas is, ultimately, all its own, glorious work (well, the glorious work of a glorious combination of writer, adapter, director, various designers and cast), the last reference in the imaginary pitch list is probably the most appropriate, given that Claudio Tolcachir’s award-winning 2005 drama was first produced in recession-gripped Buenos Aires and explores similar issues to Doria’s cult film: generational conflict, financial woes, a claustrophobic domestic environment. Tolcachir, however, takes all those issues and amps the stress-volume all the way up to eleven.

Stella Feehily’s skilful adaptation relocates the Coleman family’s home to Dublin, Ustinov Studio Artistic Director Laurence Boswell gives them all manner of emotional and physical dynamics to play with, and an artfully cohesive eight-strong ensemble bring the family’s disturbing, frenetic, claustrophobic, situation to life; we’re firmly on kitchen sink realism territory here, and the super-dysfunctional Coleman family’s drains are blocked beyond repair.

Three generations of the poverty-stricken clan live together in one tiny, grubby, broken-down house: Granny, her daughter Mary, and Mary’s three grown up children Damian, Gaby and Marko. When Granny is taken ill, Mary’s estranged sister Veronica is forced into an uncomfortable reconciliation with her kith and kin. When all is said and done (and there’s a lot said and done during this fraught, 120-minute emotional switchback ride) this is a family reunion from hell.

Anne Kent as Granny and Laoisha O’Callaghan as Mary are poignantly lifelike as defective matriarchal lynchpins: battered by circumstance, worn down by adversity, exhausted by hardship. It’s clear that, over the years, it’s largely been left to young Gaby (Evanna Lynch) to ‘be’ mother, struggling to keep the Colemans fed and watered while trying to forge her own escape route. Gaby’s twin brother Damian, meanwhile (David Crowley) has little in common with his sister apart from sharing the same dad, who’s long since fled the scene; he’s a brooding, abstract, vodka-chugging disaster waiting to happen.

And then there’s Marko: ah, bless Marko… and bless Rowan Polanski, who brings tender sensitivity to the role of a boy offered no formal acknowledgement of (or support for) his serious developmental disorders, making his bewilderment, slightly sinister obsessions and multiple physical idiosyncrasies agonisingly heartrending throughout. 

Marko’s sister Veronica, meanwhile – separated from the family by her (and Marko’s) affluent father as a baby, now a successful married businesswoman with two children of her own – adds further mania to the already fraught mayhem. Has Veronica really escaped her problematic heritage? As Natalie Radmall-Quirke slowly but surely allows glimpses of Veronica’s own, deeply-troubled life to slither out from beneath a taut, controlled veneer of success, the answer to that question becomes all too painfully clear.

Inequality, disadvantage, privation; dereliction of duty, despair, despondency – many issues are raised under the Coleman family’s roof with little resolution to lighten the load despite the frequent, sharp shards of dark humour woven into the expeditious script. Back to that imaginary pitch again, the Colemans are the diametric opposite of The Waltons – Tolcachir’s drama offers a bleak insight into marginalised lives with no details omitted.

Main image: Laoisha O’Callaghan (Mary) and Anne Kent (Granny) in The Omission of the Family Coleman. Credit: Simon Annand