In The Night Alive, Conor McPherson’s new play, Tommy (Ciaran Hinds), a middle-aged ‘moocher’ (as he calls himself) living in a squalid Dublin bedsit, has gone out to get some chips, but comes back instead with a bloodied and bruised girl.
Aimee (Caoilfhionn Dunne) has been beaten up by her ex and has landed in Tommy’s lap, and she should thank her lucky stars that he’s not such a bad lad. Yes, he’s a ducker and a diver (‘freelance’); yes, he’s in the midst of a struggle with his ex-missus over the kids; and yes, he’s not exactly ‘a catch’ – but he’s a man who, by his own admission has “never hit a woman in me life, although there’s many a time I had reason to.” And in Aimee’s world, that’s about as good as it feels it’s going to get.
So she stays, cadges a bed, gives him a bit of ‘relief’ for the rent (he’d do it himself, he says, if it wasn’t for this damned Repetitive Strain Injury), and meets his mate Doc (Michael McElhatton) a one-sentence-behind-everyone-else kind of guy, resplendent in dirty brown jumper and trackie bottoms, who is forever climbing in the window of Tommy’s bedsit, usually clutching something he’s nicked.
Soutra Gilmour’s set is a detailed depiction of how a Tommy would live; all bin bags, faded posters of sunsets, and used tea bags clogging up the sink. It’s mostly bathed in a dirty yellow light as if from a dusty 100w bulb, and the bit we see of the loo behind the door is enough to make you retch.
The two men dance around Aimee with words, feeling their way tentatively, offering friendship of a sort. Tommy’s Uncle Maurice (McPherson regular Jim Norton) who owns the building makes sporadic but memorable appearances. He’s often drunk and struggling with the fact that only eight people turned up to the anniversary mass for his wife.
As Tommy and Aimee swap gifts, albeit shoplifted ones, we see a hesitant relationship blooming. Until the ex turns up. Brian Gleeson, son of Brendan, plays Kenneth, a psychopath who uses streams of words to baffle and confuse. This is particularly effective on poor, slow Doc who can’t understand the danger facing him until it’s too late. The first shock of the play is brutal and hits you like a hammer.
McPherson’s prose is lyrical and meandering, a pleasure to to the ears, especially when he riffs on a throw-away subject. Tommy tries to palm Doc off with payment in the form of cigars. When Doc points out that they’re out of date, Tommy responds with the pragmatic “Well, that only makes them easier to light.” And it’s funny too, with their absurdist conversations about nothing in particular. Dopey Doc’s writing a book called The Call of Nature, and his idea of presents for Tommy are a CD called The Rocking Sounds of the Vuvuzela and a book called, ironically as it turns out, How to Survive Life-Threatening Situations.
There are also glorious moments of losers being happy as when Tommy, Doc and Aimee break into spontaneous gyrations to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, but continued happiness is unlikely in these hopeless lives.
The two moments of violence let the piece down. It just doesn’t need them: it would be a better and more satisfying play without, ho hum, all the drama. The voices are enough and it feels almost as if McPherson has lost faith in his characters with the need to bring such extremes into their lives.They’re more than interesting enough without it.
And what’s with the ear-splitting music punctuating scenes? McPherson, who here directs his own play, should turn it down as it shatters the mood. Or am I just getting old?
The acting is uniformly superb although the stage particularly lights up when Norton as drunken and angry Uncle Maurice reels on. Dunne’s Aimee is suitably vulnerable and bruised, although she’s quite the enigma too, while McElhatton gives Doc an amiability that makes you want to mother him (if it wasn’t for that awful brown jumper). There are inconsistencies written into his character – he’s supposed to be slow, but has quite a clever speech near the end – which he handles well and almost irons out.
Hinds’ face tells a story in itself. Naturally doleful, made even longer by a handlebar moustache, it tells a tale of a loser who has hope thrust upon him unexpectedly. Deep down, his eyes say, I know this isn’t going to work because it never does, but that doesn’t mean I won’t give it a go. And that’s quite a lot for eyes alone to say…..
At 105 minutes, The Night Alive is long enough for you to sink into Tommy’s sinking world. And it’s a world that’s satisfying and complete.
What: The Night Alive
Where: Donmar Warehouse, Earlham Street, London
When: Until July 27
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