Manchester Theatre Awards

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And the Rope Still Tugging Her Feet (The Greater Manchester Fringe Festival)

Caroline Burns Cook
Face to Face
53Two, Manchester
29 July 2017 to 30 July 2017

And the Rope Still Tugging Her Feet (written and performed by Caroline Burns Cook) tells a story so sad and bizarre that it could only be true.

In 1984 a new-born baby boy was found stabbed to death in County Kerry. Joanne Hayes, an unmarried woman who was known to have been pregnant, was suspected of the murder.  Under pressure from the local Garda Hayes confessed but the matter could not rest there – for their theory to be correct the authorities had to implicate also the rest of Hayes’s family including her aunt, who was incapacitated after a series of strokes, and her learning impaired brother.

Hayes rescinded her confession but admitted her own baby had been stillborn and was buried on the family farm. The case became increasingly convoluted with the local Garda claiming Hayes (whose blood type differed from that of the murdered baby) could have given birth to twins - having been impregnated simultaneously by two different men - and killed them both.  An Inquiry was critical of the authorities and no charges were pressed against Hayes.

Faced with such an incredible story and a culture that sounds like something out of Deliverance director Colin Watkeys opts for a gothic almost melodramatic tone – opening with crashing thunder and sole performer Caroline Burns Cook crawling across the stage. This fits well with the approach taken by Burns Cook who describes not just an individual who is mentally confused but an entire community and culture that borders on psychotic.

And the Rope Still Tugging Her Feet is far from being a dry monologue. As well as bringing to life a range of characters Burns Cook tells the story in a brash and engaging manner – breaking off the main storyline to engage in a burst of Irish dancing and explaining the part it plays in keeping women in their place. Burns Cook ridicules the idea that Joanne Hayes was supposed to have been impregnated simultaneously by two different men with a cheerful song based upon the medical term for the process : heteropaternal super–fecking-fecundation.

The picture painted of Irish communities is disturbing with Hayes being perceived as guilty because of her moral character (unmarried pregnancy and a relationship with a married man) even before the facts of the murder case are considered. The words used to describe Hayes - ‘harlot’ and the like - seem to belong to an earlier, more judgmental, age.

Burns Cook describes a dysfunctional education system and culture that simply ignores inconvenient facts. Hayes is taught to appreciate the writings of Tolstoy but the only sex education offered is advice never to sit on a boy’s knee without first covering it with a phone book. The details in the play are harrowing but the hardest part is accepting the actions of the central character who, after all, concealed the death of a child.

Hayes is presented as a romantic innocent – someone so intoxicated by the relative freedom and social life offered by her first job away from the family farm that she is in love with the concept of being loved and so ripe for exploitation. Retaining sympathy for the character is far from easy but the fever-dream atmosphere of the closing scene at least suggests the delirium and desperation that might have influenced her actions.

Reviewer: David Cunningham