Theatre Review 2023
Etcetera Theatre is one of those off-West End pub theatres that is steeped in so much theatrical history that you feel the second you start walking up the stairs into the theatre space. Simple in its layout and style, the space offers a unique blank canvas for productions to bring their vision to life, which is exactly what Erin Murray-Quinlan achieved with the London transfer of Brain Hemingway.
Erin Murray-Quinlan plays Erin, who, on getting a deadline of 45 minutes to complete her new musical, struggles to find her motivation as writer's block sets in. Whether it’s fear of failure or the haunting she’s experienced from the subject of her last show, Ernest Hemingway, Evan Quinlan, Erin needs to confront these fears, regrets, and self-doubt in order to move past this bout of writer's block.
Murray-Quinlan’s writing is as bold, funny, and touching as it is dark and self-deprecating. Some of the lines referring to her appearance, writing, and body are sharply delivered by Quinlan's Hemingway who seems to have a great deal of fun as Hemingway and has even more fun delivering these darkly funny lines, which genuinely illustrate the skill and insight to be discovered in Murray-Quinlan’s text. As a writer, she has created a show that is emotionally rich, touchingly honest, and perfectly balanced with a gentle humour, especially in how the relationship between Erin and Hemingway is explored.
One of the things that capture your focus early on is the small picture of a young girl with her beloved childhood dog that sits on Erin's desk. This is a young Erin, someone with so much hope and joy, and as the play progresses, the more significant this picture becomes. In reflecting on this, Erin is able to see the hope and dreams she had as a child. It is an image that is innocent of the bad reviews, the stalled career, or the writer's block. Every time Hemingway attacks Erin via this image, Erin is quick to snap back at him, taking away any power he might assume over the young Erin. As for Erin, this is a little girl with the world at her feet; she’s happy and carefree and has a passion, and it is that passion that a now-grown-up Erin seems to have lost.
The interaction between Hemingway and Erin every time they talk about this image is very powerful, and at one point, Erin’s explosive reaction to Hemingway’s scathing, unrelenting comments changed the tone of the play. The air was sucked out of the room, and you could feel Erin's frustration and annoyance towards Hemingway.
Every time Hemingway challenges her on this image, Erin is quick to snap back at him, taking away any power he might assume over the young Erin.
This back and forth between Hemingway and Erin, with her less-than-successful past production, Hemingway’s Wife, coming in for a lot of unfair criticism from Hemingway. But here Murray-Quinlan has Hemingway say something rather apt: he says that part of the reason why the show ‘failed’ was because the focus wasn’t on him but on his wife. The lives of men like Hemingway are part of a tragic male fantasy, and the public is only too happy or content to ignore the personal histories or lifestyles they led. It’s a sacrifice we’re willing to make for championing their art, and the way Murray-Quinlan talks about Hemingway, who seems to invent quotes about himself aimed at making him sound much better or tougher than what he was, plays into that fantasy. In the press release for the London run at Etcetera Theatre, it’s highlighted that the show was partly inspired by the reaction Murray-Quinlan got for some research she’d done on Hemingway, which veered towards misogyny. Male writers like Hemingway—in fact, you can use this to describe any male in the creative field—hold a certain level of power and influence over the public conscience that can be impossible to shake. Gatekeepers intent on making sure books, films, art, etc. by these men remain at the forefront, anyone coming in to challenge this is routinely rubbished. It’s less about hero worship and more about a refusal to accept that these men have faults.
Murray-Quinlan explores this by having Erin and Hemingway talk about his failure as a father; his not knowing just how many kids he has gets a big laugh, which is heartbreaking because we as the audience continue to play into this male fantasy. Deadbeat dads have always been an inexplicable part of our society, but for art, we accept that Hemingway was far too essential as a writer to be held accountable for his failings or responsibilities as a father.
This is all beautifully captured in the song I Won’t Hold On from the aforementioned production of Murray-Quinlan’s Hemingway’s Wife. There is an honesty in the words that are softly sung by Murray-Quinlan—someone who knows they are hurting but knows that there is no power in holding onto someone who wants to leave. Murray-Quinlan gives a powerful voice to Hemingway’s first Pauline Pfeiffer, someone willing to sacrifice their love for someone who is incapable of reciprocating. I Won’t Hold On is wonderfully sung, and really leaves a lump in your throat.
Brain Hemingway is an insightful and touching production that is brought to the stage by a theatre maker who is living their passion. Murray-Quinlan could have focused too much on one theme, be it Hemingway himself, the pressures and stress of not ‘getting’ there, or the ongoing battles of mental health caused by the lack of professional success. But Murray-Quinlan creates a balance between humour, farce, and satire with heartfelt honesty and realism that leaves you inspired.