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What's In A Name?

The full company of Translations. Photo courtesy of Richard Smith Photography.

Translations by Brian Friel, The Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa, from 21 February to 2 March 2024. Directed by Tom O’Connor.

Review by Alison Manning.


Translations by Brian Friel, currently on at the Loft Theatre in Leamington Spa, was first performed in 1980 but is set in an Irish-speaking hedge school in 1833 in the townland of Baile Beag or Ballybeg in County Donegal.

A range of colourful characters are learning in their own ways, from the girl with a speech impediment who learns to say who she is, through someone who studies a map of America where she longs to go, to the older man who never changes his clothes but is fluent in Greek and Latin, constantly reading them and immersed in their mythologies.

They are taught by the master, Hugh, (played by Craig Shelton) who is knowledgeable but perhaps a little prone to drinking and his lame but reliable and intelligent son, Manus (Simon Truscott), who fills in for his dad as necessary. In the midst of this the master's other son, Owen (Christopher Stanford) returns after several years away, with his colleagues from the British army, on an assignment to map out the area, standardising and changing all the place names in the process. 

(l-r)Lieutenant Yolland (Ted McGowan), Captain Lancey (Mark Roberts) and Owen (Christopher Stanford). Photo by Richard Smith Photography.

Though the play deals with political issues and the influence and possible threat of the British army, it raises so many more themes and questions which are sensitively explored in this production. The theme of language is key. Language is portrayed as a dividing factor. The locals speak Irish (as well as some Greek and Latin) but the soldiers speak only English.

Can people who speak different languages from different communities ever truly integrate? The actors' skilful delivery of lines and use of accents means that we are never confused about which language is being spoken, even when two characters are speaking in actuality in English, but in the play in two different languages and failing to understand each other.

The language barrier, whilst being a serious and poignant issue, also gives rise to great comic moments, where the actors resort to extravagant gestures to explain themselves, have misunderstandings, talk at cross purposes, or in perfect sync with each other, sometimes without realising it in the absence of translation.

We are immersed in this world from the very start, with an accordionist and a violinist on stage before the play begins, helping us get into the spirit with their jaunty Irish tunes. Likewise in the interval two of the characters remain on the stage, carrying on with their work. The intricate set itself also transports us with the amazingly detailed wooden walls and planks depicting the edge of the hedge school, consisting of planks, steps, straw, stools, ivy, jars, books and shelves, in an authentic rural reflection of Irish life at this time, where they are reliant on farming and live in constant fear of potato blight.

(l-r)Hugh and Owen. Photo by Richard Smith Photography.

The simple lighting works very effectively too, especially with the moonlit scenes where the appearance of the moon on the backdrop and the subtle change of lighting really creates a different atmosphere for this significant scene.


The whole question of naming things and associated identities raised by this play gives you lots to ponder on. By renaming the place names, are the army taking control of them and redefining where people live?

The Irish characters toy with the questions of, if the names are changed, will they still know where the places are and where they live? Sarah learns to say her own name, overcoming her speech impediment and asserting her identity, but Owen is called the wrong name, Roland, by his colleagues, so are they in some way distorting his identity? Owen at first tolerates it saying: “It’s only a name. It’s the same me, isn’t it? Well, isn’t it?”

This powerfully-portrayed production leaves you with several unanswered questions, such as this, but a lot to think about.

Translations is on at the Loft Theatre in Leamington Spa from 21 February until 2 March 2024. For more information and to book tickets go to:



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