How do you cope when you lose a loved one, both tragically and unexpectedly? What would you do if you knew the people responsible? Firebrand Theatre‘s The Match Box asks these questions and more, as we come face-to-face with a woman who ends up losing it all.
From the synopsis alone, we know that The Match Box is a tale about loss. As Sal’s monologue begins, you get the sense that she knows you are already aware of what has happened: her musings about safety matches and talking sheep are humorous, yet they all lead back to the inescapable fact that her daughter, Mary, is dead. What follows is a portrayal of a woman still trying to process what has happened – how she has found herself alone.
Frank McGuinness’s powerful script weighs the audience down with tough truths about how people cope with death, highlighting the somewhat clichéd ways we speak about grief. As Sal remembers her father scolding her for not mourning her daughter properly, and close friends’ frustration with her inability to cry, she reminds us that everyone copes differently. Janet Coulson’s portrayal of a grieving mother and daughter clearly strikes a note with some audience members present, the sounds of one woman’s sobs almost drowning out Coulson’s final speech.
While Coulson certainly ends on a strong note, her performance is shaky at times. With an indistinct Northern accent that is sometimes Scottish, other times Welsh, Coulson also finds herself occasionally rushing her lines, moving on too quickly. It is unsurprising given that she is setting her own pace, yet there are so many missed opportunities to take McGuinness’s words further. Despite these stumbling blocks, Coulson depicts Sal as a mother who attempts to hide her struggle with a tough persona. Yet it is in fleeting moments when she addresses Mary that her true vulnerability reveals itself.
Finally, there is the match box. We know its meaning is important, yet Sal’s repeated striking of matches offsets the audience’s investigative instincts, as it appears to simply be a coping mechanism. Her comfort in smelling burning sulphur is familiar, and throughout the performance the faint smell of the extinguished matches keeps that once-burning match constantly in your mind. Unfortunately, this simple brilliance is wasted by creative decisions that put too much pressure on the match box’s importance. Each strike of the match comes with an unnecessary sound effect which is often out of sync. Trying to do too much technically leaves Firebrand’s production feeling amateurish, which Coulson’s efforts do not deserve.
In writing The Match Box, McGuinness created an evocative monologue with incredible potential. While Coulson does well to tell Sal’s story, choice creative decisions get in the way of making this production the glass-shattering performance it could be for everyone.