Bernard Farrell launched his career over 30 years ago with a farce about six people at a group therapy session, I Do Not Like Thee Dr Fell. In Bookworms, literature has replaced therapy, but the form is the same, and so is the intent: to poke fun at the foibles of the age.
The book club is a worthy setting for a farce, and Farrell cracks his best jokes out of the contrast between the sedate stereotype and the reality: a smalltown bear pit of social one-upmanship and sordid pasts.
The play’s successes lie in its conventionality. When the book club is merely an excuse for slapstick comedy about adultery and pretentiousness, it is gently agreeable.
There are clever contrivances that facilitate the farce, like a daughter calling from Australia on Skype, and a “soundproofed” library (offstage) that allows for couples to fight in the living room without being overheard.
But other devices (the lost diary, the mad uncle in the attic) fall flat, or are sorely underdeveloped.
When the local bank manager arrives at the book club, and uses it to confront her badly indebted builder husband, the plot begins to buckle.
It is good, as ever, to see the Abbey seeking to engage with the mores of the time, but the struggle to make this farce relevant and timely overwhelms it.
The play lurches from comedy to absurdity. By the end, Farrell has introduced too many unlikely twists and devices to resolve them all satisfactorily.
Energetic performances keep it moving (I particularly enjoyed Deirdre Donnelly’s maudlin widow, Dorothy), and director Jim Culleton finds momentum in some smart physical comedy. But he can’t uncover a deeper drama in a play that is ultimately, like the model cathedral that is one of the playwright’s more awkward devices, made of matchsticks.

Reviewed for the Irish Independent at the Abbey Theatre on June 1.