What a beautiful play this is. Sebastian Barry’s Fred and Jane is a tender, slow-moving story about the friendship between two nuns. It sounds terribly dull when summarised as baldly as this, but it is anything but dull.
Fred and Jane is a short play – it probably runs under 40 minutes – with the title inspired by the Beatrice’s fond memories of Fred Astaire and Anna’s desire to be Jane Fonda. Beatrice is in her sixties and Anna is a young nun at just thirty. The two have become devoted friends, perhaps too close as the Mother Superior decides to send Anna away to a mission in England.
ANNA: England. You’d think it was a land of savages. A mission to England. As if England couldn’t do without Anna Nagle.
BEATRICE: I thought it was a bizarre decision. But of course the English cities are – this was Manchester, and that’s in a right state, so Anna says.
ANNA: You never saw such desolation and withering of the spirit.
The whole play is told in retrospect as Anna and Beatrice remember the past and tell their tale to an invisible interviewer. Beatrice’s calling came in the cinema, when she had a vision of a dove landing on Fred Astaire’s head. Until that moment she’d been wishing for a date, envious of all the kissing going on in the cinema: “that wonderful rich noisy kissing Mullingar couples perfected at that time”.
BEATRICE: I used to wake up when I was a novice in the middle of the night and see Fred standing in the corner of the room, smiling very nicely. I must say he did always smile very nicely. At the back of my mind I wanted Gary Cooper to turn up, just the once, for the effect. Or Henry Fonda.
There is incredible humour and sweetness in this short piece, mixed with a good bit of sorrow as Anna and Beatrice really do love each other. When they are separated they both fall apart…
ANNA: I used to cry – you know those ornamental ponds? There’d be one, in the middle of my pillow. You’d be surprised how much moisture you can produce. But I was a young woman. Beatrice started to come apart like an over-boiled onion. Not that she ever told me. I thought she was doing fine, aside from mere grief.
BEATRICE: I did deteriorate a little.
ANNA: Ha. The lobster speaks. Look at me, I’m all right. Bubble, bubble, bubble. Just going a little red. Hey diddle diddle.
There are no shocking revelations, no outrageous behaviour, just a tender, sweet, funny and incredibly moving story about two women who love each other dearly. A great play for two female actors.
Publisher: Faber and Faber (published with Whistling Psyche)