As part of the Ulster Bank Belfast International Arts Festival, I recently had the opportunity to see a performance of ‘The Night Alive’, an event which promises to be one of the main attractions to this year’s Festival.
Finally making its Irish debut, the Conor McPherson-penned play took place in a packed Lyric theatre, on a stage whose name I can never quite recall. The play deals with the institutional loneliness of Tommy, a 40-something with a broken marriage, doing odd jobs with his less than quick-on-the-uptake partner Doc (short for Brian). Living in a downstairs room of his uncle Maurice’s crumbling Georgian pile, Tommy’s life is given a jolt by his timely intervention to save Aimee, a local prostitute, with bittersweet consequences.
For an avowedly human drama that disdains ‘big ideas’, McPherson’s indulges himself with a few brushstrokes of artisan solidarity – a splash of Sophocles, a frisson of Friel – but for the most part seeks to ratchet up the intensity and humour by locating the story solely within the confines of a grubby Dublin room across 105 minutes with no interval. When it works, it’s a pleasure – there’s a great deal of élan in Adrian Dunbar’s white Y fronts, you know, and a textbook scene in the uses and abuses of Marvin Gaye – and there is a rapidity and a lightness of touch to the character’s patter that suggests McPherson is working hard to muffle his temptation towards the searing monologue.
This plot-heavy focus means that the play is almost overfull – a foster mother’s funeral is brushed swiftly under the piles of rubbish that adorn the stage, it lacks the razor sharpness of a McDonagh number, and there is a dramatic reunion that comes too late and with too little gloss to be the emotional core that McPherson clearly intends it to be. But these are minor quibbles in a piece that clocks in with a strong performances from all the cast. They may each only be playing one note, but the chord sounds pretty good.
DO SAY: “I like what you’ve done with the place, Adrian.”
DON’T SAY: “To a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”
Ulster Bank Arts Ambassador Niall Caldwell