Thursday 18 July 2019

Northern Lights: No place for the strong, silent man in emotionally explicit play

Northern Lights Theatre Upstairs, Dublin Until Dec 15

Northern Soul: Seána Kerslake as hairdressor Áine
Northern Soul: Seána Kerslake as hairdressor Áine

What is striking and new about playwright Stephen Jones's work, and distinguishes his plays from the previous generation, is his explicitness when it comes to the emotional lives of men. This male emotional silence was groomed by a theatrical industry oddly in thrall to the "strong silent men" of the Friel/Murphy generation. Writers like Jones (and there are others) are no longer placing emotionally stunted men centre stage; these writers are skilled in writing about intimacy.

Lloyd lives in a top-floor flat on the quays in Dublin and is not one bit silent; he sings karaoke. His window overlooks a bridge over the river that attracts lonely souls, sometimes with suicidal thoughts. Lloyd is like an inverse of the troll under the bridge in the Billy Goats Gruff fairy story; he is an angel hovering over the bridge.

Áine, a stranger to him, takes refuge from the pelting rain in his flat. Slowly, gently and with tremendous humour, the two reveal their inner complexities to each other and the audience. They are both originally from Crumlin. She is a hairdresser, he is self-employed and works from home. Their lives are touched by the terrible dramas of bereavement and of suicide.

Jones skilfully builds the story, drip-feeding details of these two ordinary, extra-ordinary Dublin lives. The script embraces literary reference, including The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger and the poetry of Charles Bukowski. But the writing is equally at home with lighter cultural touchstones such as mixed martial arts fighter Conor McGregor, the Kardashians and Strictly Come Dancing.

Jones himself plays Lloyd, with a poignant, extroverted desperation. Seána Kerslake brings layers of complexity, as well as bundles of charm, to the emotionally arrested Áine. Karl Shiels directs the performances, flipping between traumatic and humorous registers, with tremendous skill. The writing explores the communication tools required to deal with sorrow, without ever falling into the trap of sentimentality.

Lisa Krugel's jam-packed set design in the small Theatre Upstairs space speaks volumes. The terrible feather-patterned wallpaper is inspired, and the piles of eclectic books underpin Lloyd's complexity. Eoghan Carrick's lighting smooths the flow effectively, as the action occasionally pauses to cover the passage of a number of days and nights.

This 70-minute show by Awake and Sing Productions in association with Theatre Upstairs is a thoroughly engaging, emotionally articulate, funny and clever work.

Ghost story brings out Dickens' dark side

The Signalman The New Theatre, Dublin Until Dec 15

The idea of adapting a Charles Dickens ghost story as a Christmas show sounds like a good one for WitchWork and The New Theatre. It's like a slimmed-down version of the concept that used to keep the Gate Theatre occupied for the festive season.

Adapted by Jane McCarthy, the eponymous Signalman (Daniel Reardon) is troubled by seeing a warning ghost before disasters occur on his railway line. He is visited by a Gentleman (Marcus Lamb), a doctor on holiday, who disbelieves the Signalman's stories. The Gentleman has no time for the fanciful, having recently dealt with the tragedy of his own sister having a nervous breakdown, she too being troubled by ghosts.

Psychiatry and the supernatural compete for the ownership of truth.

The haunted subject matter has brought out the morose side of Dickens's talent, rather than the comedic, or the linguistically playful. Reardon and Lamb, directed by Matthew Ralli, play this down-beat to the max, so the result is a general air of gloom.

Impressive design by Lisa Krugel (set), Paul Doran (lighting) and Carl Kennedy (sound) give the show a nicely polished feel. But this ghost story hasn't been fleshed out enough to make for a truly satisfying evening.

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