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Powerful drama as three lives collide on a bridge

Once Upon a Bridge

Mick Lally Theatre, Druid online

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Aaron Monaghan and Siobhán Cullen in Druid's Once Upon a Bridge. Photo: Emilija Jefremova

Aaron Monaghan and Siobhán Cullen in Druid's Once Upon a Bridge. Photo: Emilija Jefremova

Aaron Monaghan and Siobhán Cullen in Druid's Once Upon a Bridge. Photo: Emilija Jefremova

We've become accustomed in recent times to being told that those who have died from Covid are people, not statistics. As though any one needed to be told (with the exception, perhaps, of those who have wangled their way to holidays abroad).

Acknowledged as more than statistics, people always have back stories. And playwright Sonya Kelly, always sharply observant, has taken a real-life incident in 2017 to explore three imagined back stories which have nothing to do with Covid, but relate to lives personally disrupted in an instant.

A man jogging across Putney Bridge in London cannoned into a woman walking in the opposite direction. She fell - into the street, into the path of an approaching bus. The bus driver managed to avoid the woman through expert driving and speedy reaction time. She was bruised, battered, and shocked. But she was alive. The man who had caused her fall didn't know that - he had continued his run and has never been traced.

In Once Upon a Bridge, written for Druid and given three live online performances from the Mick Lally Theatre last weekend, Kelly has put imagined bones on the three people involved: the Woman is a successful young Irish lawyer, on her way for an interview for a place in a prestigious London chamber of barristers.

Born and raised in Connemara, she had been warned by her grandmother not to go "lah-di-dah". She was to keep her soft Irish "Ts" and say "I'm after going", not "I've gone". But after a few years in London and a scholarship-funded Cambridge education, she has donned protective, ie, "received pronunciation", speech patterns.

The Man is "something in the City", more than a little ruthless as he climbs the corporate ladder. At their first meeting, his American wife told him, after he says he's a gentleman, that "a gentleman never calls himself a gentleman".

She's dead right, as his protective colouring is less successful in its ruthlessness than the Woman's innate courtesy. But the City ladder is a dog-eat-dog climb, with little time or place for deference.

The Bus Driver is looking for "the gold standard" in terms of timing at stops, coffee break, all the things that are almost impossible in London's rush-hour traffic. This morning, he's determined to achieve that almost unachievable trip. He's thinking of his pride when he will tell his small children of his great achievement as he reaches the last lap of his route, across Putney Bridge, and as the woman falls across his path.

The "incident" and subsequent delay destroy his hopes. But a later public commendation for his achievement in avoiding what could have been a horror, restores his faith in a good world.

In Kelly's effortlessly flowing prose and her spot-on human insights, these are gently panoramic pictures of modern lives filled with dreams, lived hopefully, but with all the setbacks that leave us battered but perhaps wiser. She implies it's unwise to leap to judgement or, for that matter, to lose hope.

Structured in a series of inter-weaving monologues, and played without a set, Once Upon a Bridge still packs a terrific, touching punch. It is directed by Sara Joyce, and will incorporate Sineád McKenna's set design and David Bolger's movement direction when live audiences are allowed in theatre again and the piece moves fully on to the stage of the Lally theatre, for which the commission was originally intended.

But viewed in close-up, there's the pleasure of watching the "innards" of performance as nothing can be disguised; just as inadequacies can't be hidden. But there are no inadequacies here.

Siobhán Cullen is almost luminous as the Woman, the remembered innocence of childhood tempered by a wise sophistication well learned, and wiser than her grandmother's fiercely proud belligerence.

Adetomiwa Edun is the Bus Driver, perfectly projecting a man who has had more need than many to bounce back from setbacks, but who maintains an innate joyousness and belief in humanity. He exudes optimism.

Druid regular Aaron Monaghan is the Man, the most complex of the three characters, and the least likeable. But backstories give a fuller picture, and Kelly skilfully gives us a man more insecure than crass, and Monaghan catches the portrayal in full. Consumed with a moment of self-pitying misogynistic rage, he can still engage our sympathy.

A lesson for our times, taught (mercifully) in non-Covid terms. 

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