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Anne & Oisín Unpacked

A Guest Blog Post by Sue Cole

The Anne and Oisin canon goes far beyond simple and funny comedy sketches. These vignettes chronical the lives of a mother and son (and his friend), over a series of, so far, 26 sketches. The same two (or three) characters say much the same things, in much the same environment. And yet, they never become predictable or stale.

The Anne Flanagan sketches are funny and heart-warming, and, I think, they work on several levels. I am not sure all of the levels are conscious, or even acknowledged, but they are there, nevertheless. I also think they can be classed as post-modern, a complex form of text, which demands much from the reader (viewer). Google defines the traits of post-modernism as: randomness, playfulness, fragmentation, metafiction and intertextuality. further elaborates: here post-modernism is defined as containing irony, pastiche, unpredictability, hyperreality, magic realism, distortion of time and themes of paranoia.

When we see these sketches at the beginning, we are aware that we see a man in his 30s dressed as a middle-aged woman, and another man, also in his 30s dressed as a teenaged schoolboy. In the interest of watching the sketch, we accept this and overlook it as the sketch begins. Of course, as we get to know the characters, we tend not to be so aware of the discrepancy. This is because it is never referenced in any way: these sketches are not about the age or gender of the actor. Here, we see playfulness, hyperreality (something that purports to be real, which has no basis in reality: a mother and son relationship [played by two men]). To overcome any reluctance to accept these actors as their characters, we accept a gentle realism in their relationship and domestic circumstance. For example, in "Watching TV with Your Parents" Anne tells Oisin to "move over there. Good lad. That’s my spot". This makes their living space comfortable and habitual.

She makes him a cup of tea in "Parents When You Get Dumped". In Irish and UK society, to make someone a cup of tea shows caring and a desire to comfort. This is so natural to both of them that it is not mentioned. Anne asserts her desire to keep Oisin young by offering him the spoon to lick in "Cooking with Your Parents". And when she does, he reverts to childhood and licks the spoon. This is a warm, comfortable relationship, disrupted only by the passing of time. Each sketch puts this very real relationship in a different context, but always looking at an ordinary, human moment in ordinary lives. By giving us apparently random moments from their relationship, we see randomness and fragmentation of their story.

Having accepted the premise of men in their 30’s playing these parts through the realistic situation they present, we begin to feel an element of identification. We are all, or have been, a teenager and we all have felt the embarrassment and frustration that comes with the changes in the relationship that comes with adolescence. Similarly, we have all had, or are a mother. We can identify with one, or both of these characters and the way each responds to the other.

Clearly the characters and [the] relationship are exaggerated, despite the realism and identity felt by the audience. I think this is achieved through point of view. We see Anne through Oisin’s eyes. He is growing up and the mother that has cared for him has now become overbearing, over-protective, embarrassing and not a little ridiculous. But he still turns to her when he needs her, however much she annoys him: "Parents When You are Sick", "Parents on the First Day Back at School", "Staycation with Your Parents", "When your Parents Give You a Lift". He depends on her to care for him, get him up, take him to school, shop, cook and provide for him. It is Anne he tells about getting dumped.

There is a very real irony in that we simultaneously see Oisin through Anne’s eyes. Her precious boy is becoming sulky, whiney, recalcitrant and argumentative. But he still helps in the kitchen ("When your Parents Cook Christmas Dinner"), attends school regularly, even during lockdown, and can be trusted to be left alone in the house ("When your Parents Go Away"). Oisin is a good boy, he is just growing away from Anne’s over-mothering. Their relationship is based on love and mutual affection, but hormones have temporarily disrupted it. Thus, by measuring each against the other, the relationship is exaggerated at times to the point of paranoia.

And then there is Barry. On a realistic (hyperrealistic level), he is Oisin’s friend and next-door neighbour. However, from Anne’s point of view, he is a bad influence on her little boy, whereas Oisin sees him as an ally in his bid for independence. But the audience’s true delight in Barry is that little touch of magic realism he brings. An overgrown, scruffy schoolboy, he is an agent of chaos, almost mythical in the way he appears from nowhere: apparently no door or lock can keep him out. He seems almost entirely focussed on eating and finds food everywhere Anne keeps it, but no one hears him blundering about in the kitchen. He communicates in monosyllables ("Ye", "Door", "Bread") and almost, but not quite, non sequiturs.

For example:

Anne: It’s a family holiday.

Barry: What time are we leaving? ("Staycation with Your Parents")

Barry: It’s up since last year…needs more brandy. ("When Your Parents Won't Let you Decorate the Tree")

Barry: What are you cooking?

Anne: Fish.

Barry: Don’t like fish. ("Parents When You Have Friends Over")

And that gem from Patreon [July 5, 2020, under FAH's "Bonus Material" section]:

Barry: Is the dog allowed on the couch?

Anne: We don’t have a dog.

Barry does not appear in all of the sketches: of course not, he would hardly be the magical agent of chaos if we knew that he would always be there. Unpredictability is essential to [the] post-modernism [in the Anne and Oisín sketches].

As interchangeable as these sketches are, (they can be enjoyed in any order), there is nevertheless a subtle character development taking place. With each subsequent sketch we learn a little more about each character. Oisin becomes more and more sneaky: perhaps independent is a kinder word, (the whiskey in "Calling your Parents from Abroad"), a little more sexually aware, ("Your Mother After a Parent-Teacher Meeting", the new English teacher, Mrs O’Neill), more bolshy ("Homeschooling Hell" and "When Parents Ruin your Summer"). On the other hand, he has only twice appeared out of his school uniform ["Parents When You're Sick" and "Morning Bathroom Rush"] and his age seems to vary between 14 and 18, while the room in which they live changes wallpaper to show time passing: the distortion of time is part of the comedy, I think.

Anne does not change as such, but becomes ever more over involved in Oisin’s life just when she should be giving him some space. Consequently, through Oisin’s point of view, she is becoming more intrusive, more domineering and more embarrassingly ridiculous (the Tik-Tok dance!)

Barry is interesting. Even though he is presented as a visiting spirit, we are beginning to see a back story of a boy who does not come from a good home, and this, perhaps, explains why Anne puts up with his scrounging and cheek. I think that the way in which these characters develop raise them above simple comedy sketches, and we become involved in the intertextuality of the sketches, putting them together to try to build a more complete narrative, and in this way, they become metafictional as we both believe in the premise and enjoy the production of it.

The Anne and Oisin sketches are funny, clever, truthful, show recognisable characters and relationships but also work on many levels, from simple comedy to post-modern complexity. The one level we never question (or I don’t) is that we are looking at two (or three) adult men playing a woman and a boy.

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