‘Shining City’ review

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars
Shining City, Theatre Royal Stratford East, 2021
Photo by Marc Brenner Rory Keenan (Ian)

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Brendan Coyle is phenomenal in Conor McPherson’s drama about guilt and ghosts

Conor McPherson’s 2004 play ‘Shining City’ is a strange and sometimes remarkable thing, a generically unpindownable piece of writing that hovers somewhere between forensic dissection of masculine guilt and actual full-blown ghost story. (Though to be fair, aficionados of McPherson will be aware that almost everything he’s ever written is part ghost story).

Three of its five scenes concern the relationship between nervy Dublin psychiatrist Ian (Rory Keenan) and his patient John (Brendan Coyle), an awkward widower, horribly tangled up in the emotional wreckage of his wife’s shocking accidental death in a car crash.

In the first scene, John has been sent to see Ian by his doctor, in essence because he has been seeing his dead wife around their house. This has led to John moving out, and he’s now living a faintly embarrassing existence in a B&B.

But in Nadia Fall’s major revival for Stratford East, it’s the second scene between the two men that defines the play, indeed, practically is the play. By far the longest section, it is a virtual monologue from John, played remarkably by Coyle as an uncomplicated, perhaps even dull man who hesitantly, inelegantly bares his soul to a virtually silent Ian, veritably spewing out details of a couple of lengthy, excruciating but deeply personal and exposing sexual almost-encounters that he’s clearly never shared with anybody. His words are not beautiful, and indeed some of what John confesses to is horrible, ejected like vomit from his body. For a long time it seems irrelevant to the issue of his wife’s ghost. But Coyle’s John brings it round, devastatingly, to the suggestion that these incidents led to her death. He’s wrong, but certainly his treatment of her in the aftermath of the incidents he describes to Ian led to him being on poor terms with his wife when she died.

Is it a play about Catholic guilt? I mean… it’s a play set in Ireland, about guilt, you have to factor it in somewhere. McPherson is light touch on the issue. However, in a scene in which Ian has an argument with his fiancee Neasa (Michelle Fox), it’s let slip that he’s a former priest: it’s a fascinating, wilfully underdeveloped crumb. But it feels like in his new, secular role he has once again assumed the position of confessor. His messed-up personal life – the argument with Neasa, and in a later scene, a clandestine hook-up with a male prostitute – suggests that defrocking has not removed his personal baggage. In the final scene, where both men cheerily talk to each other in affable banalities, you wonder if they really are okay.

It’s a fascinating play, and I’d have loved to have seen the well-received original production, but here it just feels a bit unwieldy. The two scenes focused on Ian’s life are too short to feel like a true counterweight to John’s story, but long enough that they threaten to overweight the storytelling. Things aren’t helped by the scene changes, which take place behind the safety curtain, and go on for what feel like days. Alexandra Faye Braithwaite’s reverby piano score springs up during these bits, and is a pretty distraction from the wait, but it does start feeling like on-hold music as the production – which overran considerably on press night – wears on.

‘Shining City’ is a beautiful, haunting play, and Brendan Coyle’s performance is remarkable: but Fall’s production doesn’t quite make the case for it being a classic.


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