Rosemary O’Dowd, Contributor
“A play should never be an answer,” playwright and director Conor McPherson suggests, “It can only act as a question.” And questions act as both point and counterpoint in his latest play, The Night Alive. How to survive life threatening situations? How do we know where we are in time? And who stole the turnips? Like its audience, the characters are in the dark, treading carefully constructed surfaces, careful not to puncture the semblance of reality. Running at The Lyric as part of its Irish premiere, The Night Alive is a fast-paced drama that splices the often comic and tragic forces of nature, seated side by side in the dark hallows of the theatre.
A back-room bedsit, humble abode of Tommy and his sometimes roommate and business partner, Doc, lights up- once someone fumbles the money to put in the electricity meter. And with the chink of a euro coin, a world of sound and vision bursts to life. This electrical resurgence offers a detailed surface level. The set, designed by Alyson Cummins, is a visual feast: the back room of an ageing house framed by two dirty sinks and loaded with tattered wares, loose floorboards, pictures of a Finnish utopia, the familiar face of Marvin Gaye. And life comes tumbling in.
Tommy, played by an agile Adrian Dunbar, along with his side-kick Doc, played by Laurence Kinlan, are freelancers, in the euphemistic sense, peddling out-of-date cigars, black pudding and patio tiles. It is a chance encounter while Tommy is out buying chips that brings Aimee, rather dramatically, back to the downstairs room of Uncle Maurice’s house. Young and fragile, she brings a delicate warmth and indelicate chaos to the men of the house, not to mention a great deal of laughter. Attracting something of an air of mystery, at Tommy’s bequest, she makes herself at home and becomes part of something. It looks a bit like family. McPherson creates a deeply ordinary world and allows it to glow. Tommy turns up the radio to Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s going on’ and creates a beautiful moment of theatre: physical and momentarily transcendent. McPherson speaks of it as shaping a moment in which the characters are growing to know each other.
“Sinners and drunks and misfits,” is how Billy Roche describes McPherson’s characters. Aimee and Tommy and Doc make up “a little community of losers”. At once losers and lovers and thieves, McPherson’s characters are not afraid to contradict themselves; they are full of paradoxes. It is their little gestures that hint at truths that the characters narrate indifferently. And these hints suggest a world outside that is brutal and violent and unforgiving, a world that is never far away, and can enter at a moment’s notice.
The play performs a technical feat. Scene changes are deftly woven into the narrative; they possess a cinematic quality, playing beautifully against the musical score. Low-lit and acting as ellipses, they permit a fast-forward of time, and are moments of skill and grace. The dialogue, rich in Dublin vernacular, is irreverent and wickedly humorous. It plays with the idea of surface: evading anything that could be deemed too serious, more often than not it leaves the audience to catch breath between laughs. But theatre has a language of its own, and between the lines and the action lie small treasures: Doc’s copybook of dreams under the mattress; Maurice’s turnips from the garden where he lost his wife; Tommy’s dream of Finland. Beneath a messy surface glimmers big questions; when violence threatens to overcome all meaning, is it the ordinary magic that offers consolation?
Running an hour and forty minutes, without interval, The Night Alive is a treat to watch for all audiences and student tickets run at a discounted price of £10. A strong cast leaves the audience slow to break the trance, and wondering, as the final song fades out, what’s next – here – there – or Hollywood?
The Night Alive is running in the Lyric Theatre until the 31st October.
Student tickets available £10 Sunday-Thursday.