1. Never Closer @ Belvoir St Theatre
    Photograph: Belvoir/Brett Boardman
  2. Never Closer @ Belvoir
    Photograph: Belvoir/Brett Boardman
  3. Never Closer @ Belvoir
    Photograph: Belvoir/Brett Boardman
  4. Never Closer @ Belvoir
    Photograph: Belvoir/Brett Boardman
  5. Never Closer @ Belvoir
    Photograph: Belvoir/Brett Boardman
  6. Never Closer @ Belvoir
    Photograph: Belvoir/Brett Boardman
  7. Never Closer @ Belvoir
    Photograph: Belvoir/Brett Boardman
  • Theatre, Drama
  • Recommended


Never Closer

4 out of 5 stars

Grace Chapple’s tightly drawn Northern Irish drama makes its grown-up debut at Belvoir’s Upstairs Theatre, with somewhat less intense results


Time Out says

I first saw playwright Grace Chapple’s Never Closer in 2022, as part of the indie program in Belvoir St Theatre's’s tiny 80-seat Downstairs Theatre. That production made a huge impression on me – filled with heavy silence, ragged sobs, soaring laughter, dancing, drinking, and all the wonderful and terrible things that come with knowing and loving a group of friends for most of your life. All of this “acutely emotive” drama is made more profound by the play’s setting, with the violence and political turmoil of Northern Ireland between 1977 and 1987 unfolding in the background. The same ensemble of actors from 2022, directed by Hannah Goodwin, have graduated to the mainstage this year, making their debut in Belvoir’s 372-seat Upstairs Theatre. The result is somewhat less intense than the original production, but it is still a well-written portrait of the importance of connection and care in the face of terror.

Chapple writes about a group of friends who’ve grown up together in a tiny town. Deirdre (Emma Diaz) is stubbornly rooted there, and her friends Jimmy (Raj Labade), Niamh (Mabel Li), Mary (Ariadne Sgouros) and Conor (Adam Sollis) are all struggling with living in a place filled with bombings, death and turmoil. We begin at Christmas, 1977, and Niamh is leaving for London. The opening scenes are slightly shorter than the first iteration, but they still do the important work of setting up the sometimes difficult closeness between all of the characters. Then we jump forward to 1987, and Niamh hasn’t been home in ten years. The whole gang find themselves together again at Deirdre’s house – but this time, Niamh has brought home a British fiancé (which isn't a good look to her Irish nationalist mates). 

What an achievement and a blessing that this play has been given this space for a whole new audience to fall in love with it

Goodwin directs this stellar cast with tenderness, and their performances seem somehow even more nuanced than the play’s debut. Lynch and Sgouros are highlights, with the blessed role of bringing humour to the complexity of the relationships between them all. But like all great plays, this is an ensemble work that is carried by the detailed contributions of each actor on the stage. Chapple is an expert at switching between somber and silly, and this fine balance in her writing is aptly executed by the people bringing it to life.

The set design by Grace Deacon and costume design by Keerthi Subramanyam preserves the look and feel of the original production – with 1970s browns, yellows, and greens and cosy tea cups filled with Jameson dotted throughout the design. Lace curtains reveal a window set into the back left wall, facing onto the cold grey world outside. Smaller details like pink scarves and cereal boxes are unfortunately somewhat drowned out in this larger theatre. Peculiarly, rather than encompassing the entire space, the walls of Deirdre’s house are set up like a cut-out rectangle that ends well before the back right wall. Empty blackness surrounds the edges of the house, and this blackness creates a divide between audience and actor –  interrupting the possibility of getting wrapped up in the big emotions emanating from the stage.

Phoebe Pilcher’s lighting design and Alyx Dennison’s sound design again echoes the look of the first production, transposed into a bigger space. Pilcher's lights move between warm yellows and icy blues – during particularly intimate moments, everything is plunged into the darkness, except for the illuminated faces of two actors. It’s an effective device, but the wash of warm yellow sometimes emphasises the dark void between the stage and the audience. Meanwhile, Dennison’s sound underscores the play without being too intrusive until the exact moment it needs to. 

It’s an interesting experience to see a work that I still remember so vividly on stage again two years later – and admittedly, my enthusiasm for this imperfect production is likely influenced by rose-tinted glasses. Regardless, it is fascinating to observe the way I found myself relating more to different characters to my first viewing of the play, and where I felt myself longing to be able to see them again for the first time. For this little critic (and for the other theatregoers who saw the previous iteration of Never Closer) it’s a delight to return to these old fictional friends, and to be able to introduce them to some more special people in my life. 

Never Closer, in this grown up version, is still finding out how to be big – but then again, so am I. What an achievement and a blessing that this play has been given this space for a whole new audience to fall in love with it. (If you’d like to read my original review from 2022, you can find it over here on Kscope Arts Journal.)

Never Closer is playing at Belvoir St Theatre until June 16, 2024. Find tickets over here.

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Opening hours:
Tue-Wed 6.30pm, Thu-Sat 7.30pm + Thu 1pm, Sat 2pm, Sun 5pm
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