Saturday 21 April 2018

Theatre: McPherson's Night is Alive

McPherson at his best: Kate Stanley Brennan, Adrian Dunbar and Laurence Kinlan in the Night Alive
McPherson at his best: Kate Stanley Brennan, Adrian Dunbar and Laurence Kinlan in the Night Alive

Emer O'Kelly

At a pivotal moment in Conor McPherson's The Night Alive, Marvin Gaye's What's Going On? blasts into Tommy's grotty bedsit, engulfing him and his dopey side-kick Doc, as well as the street-wise waif Aimee. It's as though the music wakes them to more than its rhythm as they dance increasingly frenetically to its beat. Somewhere in all three damaged souls, that is the question that is being asked.

And being a McPherson play, the question is familiarly deep: how can we survive our isolation, how can we repair our damage, how can we make our eyes see the faint shadows of hands being reached out to us?

Tommy is separated, his children growing up without him, his house-clearance business almost a mockery as he depends for the roof over his head on Uncle Maurice, who took him in as a troubled youngster unwanted by his parents. Doc is not quite all there, a faithful shadow full of well-meant cockiness, Tommy's spare divan the only home he knows.

And then comes the night when Tommy intervenes when he sees Aimee being beaten viciously on the street, takes a swing at her attacker, and brings her home with him.

McPherson explores the fragile relationships which bind them warily together, Uncle Maurice as the half-bewildered, half-comprehending commentator from an arguably more innocent era, wanting to find Aimee's prostitution unpalatable, but unable to resist her helplessness.

And then a real catalyst appears: Kenneth, who has broken Aimee's nose, part boy-friend, total pimp, embodiment of menace. And the grubby survival techniques which bind Tommy, Doc and Aimee together become a kind of shining glory in comparison.

The Night Alive is Conor McPherson at his contemplative best, probing the meaning of survival and human inter-dependence while cocking a snook at assumed moral certainties. It's wildly, hollowly funny, cast in the kind of laconic Dublin wit that kicks you in the stomach while rolling you in the aisles.

The Irish premiere is a co-production between the Belfast Lyric and the Dublin Theatre Festival, and it opened the Festival at the Gaiety Theatre. Casting and direction are superb, with the author directing a cohesion of teamwork from his cast that is nothing short of perfect.

Adrian Dunbar is Tommy, his Dublin accent as dazzling as his rueful appeal as the beleaguered Tommy, with Laurence Kinlan a heartrendingly well-meaning and dim-witted Doc. Kate Stanley Brennan is Aimee, a devastating balance between desperation, sadness and half-hearted hope. And Ian Lloyd Anderson is the chilling embodiment of the stillness of mindless violence as Kenneth. Frank Grimes as Uncle Maurice balances them all as the emotional outsider who must come to terms with a new reality.

Design is by Alyson Cummins, lighting by Zia Holly, sound by Gregory Clarke, and fight direction by Donal O'Farrell.

Being a Festival production it has a short run; until October 4, but then transfers to Belfast: two opportunities to see a spectacularly splendid evening's theatre.

* * * * *

TIME has stopped for John. He tells us of the first time it stopped, the day he fell asleep when his wife was out, and woke to find his months-old daughter lying in a pool of re-gurgitated milk: he thought his little girl was dead.

Maybe it began there, or maybe it was his nature. Because John is "just here"; he lives in a self-contained bubble, not needing anything. More importantly, not needing anybody.

Just Here is Eugene O'Brien's new play at Bewley's Café Theatre at Powerscourt (lunchtime) in Dublin. It is a finely-tuned study in self-protective guilt, or more realistically of utterly cowardly emotional selfishness: the story of a life turned inwards in a determination to stay uninvolved, avoid responsibility.

John married Rita after watching her for a year before ever speaking to her. They dated for another year: not so much a slow burner as an ashy grey pit. He "liked being married". But he didn't like Rita. And that's all over now.

Then a letter from Australia intrudes on his isolation. And O'Brien gives us the slow revelation of the devastation at the heart of self-protective selfishness. To say more would be to reveal the plotline which is initially predictable but has all O'Brien's subtly dramatic power at its heart.

Daniel Reardon is John, a quietly explosive performance as impressive as it is creepily distasteful. He is tightly directed by Charlie Bonner, in an excellent projection set by Andrew Murray, lit by Colm Maher.

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