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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Donmar Warehouse


  Caoilfhionn Dunne/ Ph: Helen Warner

Irish dramatist Conor McPherson's plays are rife with ghosts, or with talk of ghosts. His characters are often haunted, one way or another. But now the Donmar Warehouse has acquired a revenant, and it's McPherson himself. This intimate Covent Garden theatre has just revived The Weir – his early masterpiece, set in a lonely pub and laced with ghost stories. And, in an instant, McPherson has come back to the same venue, this time to direct the world premiere of his brand new play.
The Night Alive is a portrait of shabby underdogs and desperados, of mean viciousness, despair and the saving grace of love. We're in Dublin, in a terrifically squalid bedsit, littered with junk – a conversion within a once-elegant townhouse (decor by Soutra Gilmour). Tommy (Ciarán Hinds) is middle-aged and on the skids. Recently bankrupt and divorced, he is renting this room from his widowed uncle (Jim Norton), who has always acted as Tommy’s surrogate father.
Hinds is a scammer, barely scraping a living by doing odd jobs with his mate. Doc (Michael McElhatton) has some mental-health issues and, being only one step away from homelessness, often dosses on the spare camp bed. But then Tommy rescues a pale, scrawny waif called Aimee (Caoilfhionn Dunne) from being beaten up on the street, and he offers her shelter for the night. She stays longer, brings trouble and might be a wicked, ungrateful leech, yet his altruistic devotion to her quietly grows into an extraordinary, unconditional love. Perhaps there are echoes of Christian parables under all this.
McPherson’s script could, admittedly, do with a slight trim. One might wonder if there wasn’t enough time for a redraft, or if another director might, more objectively, have pared out two or three weak speeches (strained jokes and obtrusive digressions about black holes and the nature of time).
However, all in all, The Night Alive is riveting, edgy, startlingly weird, funny and moving. The writing slews boldly from kitchen-sink naturalism to almost surreal nightmarishness (with nods to Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock and Harold Pinter). En route, there’s also hilarious beer-bellied boogieing and some of the most terrifying stage violence that I have ever seen. To say more would risk spoiling the shocks of the storyline.
As for McPherson’s outstanding actors, Dunne is definitely a name to watch, hunched and pale as a ghost, hovering between wary vulnerability and glowering malignancy. Norton shifts endearingly from sanctimonious snooping to generous tolerance, then from booze-sodden grief to cultivating his garden – making a new start (with a hint of Voltaire’s Candide). Hinds, meanwhile, is absolutely wonderful, totally absorbed in the role, looking like a seedy cowboy with a walrus moustache, yet proving deeply touching. He is on my shortlist for Best Actor of the Year.


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