Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Theatre review: The Night Alive

Rounding off the latest invasion of Irish plays in London is Conor McPherson's newest work. The Night Alive follows the hit revival of his best-known play The Weir at the Donmar Warehouse, in a production directed by McPherson himself. Part character study, part grubby thriller, The Night Alive takes place in the back room of a house in Dublin, roughly kitted out into a filthy bedsit. He was once the owner of a reasonably successful company but it went down with the rest of the Irish economy, and now Tommy (Ciarán Hinds) scrapes a living as an odd-job man and dodgy wheeler-dealer. Estranged from his wife and children, Tommy lives in this flat in his uncle Maurice's (Jim Norton) house. His friend Doc (Michael McElhatton,) slow-witted but prone to the occasional profundity, sometimes works for him for peanuts, and frequently crashes at the flat when he has nowhere else to stay.

At the play's opening Tommy has spotted prostitute Aimee (Caoilfhionn Dunne) being beaten up by her boyfriend, and has brought her back to his place to patch up her cuts. With Aimee sticking around for the next few nights, Tommy starts to imagine a different life for himself, and in the process takes stock of the people in his life at the moment.

The Night Alive is a hard play to categorise, but quite an absorbing one. Although painting a pretty dark picture of life for people on the bottom rung, McPherson injects it with plenty of humour, both verbal and physical, and Hinds does an impressive job of maintaining a real kind of dignity to a character who shuffles around in his own rubbish much of the time, half-drunk. McElhatton backs him up well as the likeable but frustrating Doc, and Norton's part as the exasperated uncle is small-ish but memorable. (Nobody has quite as many flavours of "exasperated" as Norton - he was Bishop Brennan after all.)

As the title suggests, much of the action takes place at night, and at the play's mid-point it's particularly impressive how the production, helped by Soutra Gilmour's set and Neil Austin's low but not murky lighting, really gives the impression of us looking in on a group of people staying up in the wee small hours. This is soon followed by a change of pace as Aimee's violent boyfriend Kenneth reappears, Brian Gleeson giving an unsettling performance that mixes an almost comically shambolic bearing with a palpable sense of menace underlying it from the start.

With the playwright directing his own work, the pace is a bit too samey throughout and some of his choices exacerbate a case of Multiple Ending Syndrome. And while Dunne's performance is unnerving and powerful, there's something a bit too enigmatic about her character that makes her hard to get a grip on. But this is an intense piece and I found it an oddly optimistic one in a way as well - although certain aspects of Tommy's life have improved by the end, it may be the way he learns to deal with the people in his life that provides the play's real sense of progress.

The Night Alive by Conor McPherson is booking until the 27th of July at the Donmar Warehouse.

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes straight through.

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