Small is beautiful when it comes to Conor McPherson plays: the Irish writer’s best works haul you bodily into the dreams, fears and inexplicable experiences of just a handful of characters. Proving the point, his last play, the National Theatre’s gargantuan gothic melodrama ‘The Veil’, was pretty rubbish, a sprawling edifice that seemed determined to crush you to death with weighty symbolism.
Fortunately, the Donmar Warehouse doesn’t do big, and in this immediate follow up to the venue’s splendid revival of McPherson’s ‘The Weir’, the playwright is back to his best as he directs his own new play.
In ‘The Night Alive’, Ciarán Hinds is on great form as Tommy, a slobbish, moustachioed, self-confessed ‘moocher’, blissfully drifting along the bottom rung of Dublin society.
He does some odd jobs here, some petty criminality there; but for the most part he keeps his nose out of trouble, looking out for his dimwit mate Doc (Michael McElhatton) and subsisting in the shambolic, junk-filled room he rents off his irascible uncle Maurice (Jim Norton). Then a woman enters his life. Rescued from a guy attacking her on the street, Caoilfhionn Dunne’s inscrutable Aimee slowly starts to thaw under Tommy’s slightly weird charms.
For the first hour, ‘The Night Alive’ is a gently uplifting buddy comedy that revels in the amusing interplay between Hinds’s lovable rogue, McElhatton’s dopey sidekick and the increasingly chipper Aimee.
But McPherson usually has something else up his sleeve, and somewhat over halfway in, Brian Gleeson’s terrifying, barely-explained thug, Kenneth, suddenly steams into their lives. It’s a riveting and utterly unnerving performance from Gleeson, and a masterstoke from McPherson as writer and director, raising the tension and the stakes exponentially as Tommy’s hitherto effortless mess of an existence is suddenly made to seem desperately fragile.
For all this, and the beautifully cryptic ending, ‘The Night Alive’ is really a celebration of ordinary people looking out for each other. Maybe that is a kind of magic – but it takes a special kind of play to make us realise that’s so.
By Andrzej Lukowski