The Night Alive

Minor character inconsistencies aside, Conor McPherson's play is a furiously paced hacky sack of humour full of exceptional stage performances

Tommy (Adrian Dunbar) is a standard slob. He’s a small-time wheeler-dealer with questionable hygiene and is marked chiefly by his total lack of ambition.

He lives in one room of his uncle Maurice’s house, which he keeps in student-like repair, and seems to have security problems: throughout the play people just drift in and out of his house, all barriers melting away.

When we first meet him he is escorting a young woman onto the premises with romance in mind. The fact that she has recently been punched in the face and is turbaned by his blood spattered jacket doesn’t put him off in the slightest. This is Aimee (Kate Stanley Brennan), nervy and highly strung, but looking for a place to lie low for a while. An entente of sorts is established. 

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Maurice, (Frank Grimes) together with his deceased wife Maura, raised Tommy from a child, finally managing to toilet train him at the age of four. It’s Maura’s memorial mass on Sunday and Maurice is determined that Tommy should attend, knowing full well that this is extremely unlikely. Tommy is a serial disappointer. 

The final character in this filial family is Doc (Laurence Kinlan), a lovable idiot  depending on your tolerance of idiots  and a sacrificial lamb. It is Doc who must soak up the punishment meted out for any of Tommy’s perceived wrong-doings.

This is a play that takes as its literary forebears Galton and Simpson or Eric Chappell and John Sullivan. It’s set in a sit-com landscape where men represent a down-at-heel, fractious orthodoxy and women are agents of chaos, disrupting the easy flow of their lives and exposing the thread-bareness of their existence.

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This is not to its detriment in the least: the grammar of situation comedy is almost mythic in its structure. Aimee comes flooding into their lives like the goddess Tiamat, destroying everything in her wake, albeit inadvertently. She has leant Tommy ambition, for the first time in his life he actually wants something.

It takes the entirety of the rest of the play for the reset button to be pressed and for the boys to revert to the quiet desperation of their lives. Or does it? The author seems to add a metaphysical twist later on in the play which suggests something quite different.

Conor McPherson’s play is fast and funny; the first half in particular seems like an unending volley of one-liners and sight gags. It’s a 'ha ha hacky sack' and Adrian Dunbar and Laurence Kinlan never drop the bean bag, parrying back and forth at furious speed.

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These scenes build until Doc puts 'What Going On?' by Marvin Gaye on the radio and the characters, coyly at first, begin to dance around each other, until the volume increases and the cast are transported, erupting and finally, briefly, happy.

We know it can’t last. And it doesn’t. Aimee’s boyfriend – and pimp  Kenneth (Ian-Lloyd Anderson), is looking for her.

When he first appears there is an abrupt change of gear. What has been a good humoured, gentle comedy about a man romancing a woman with a bleeding head wound is disrupted by Kenneth’s shark-like presence. He drifts in like a vengeful revenant in a soiled white suit, cornering the hapless Doc, running rings around him like a dyspeptic barrister, pointedly fondling a claw-hammer. 

When he slips in some joke-shop vampire teeth, hissing like a cobra, the effect is genuinely unsettling. 'Fear’s not one thing,' he says, 'sometimes you feel so worn out by being scared that you just want something bad to happen.'

What follows is very bad indeed. Anderson is reptilian in this scene, unblinking, tongue flickering. It is a brilliant performance. But the character is never like this again.

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Later sightings see him wheedling and cajoling and ultimately controlling Aimee or trying to close a deal with Tommy, like the two businessmen they aren’t, or doing a gonzo madman dance around the kitchen in a desperate attempt to intimidate our hero.

The suggestive menace of the first scene has completely disappeared. This is no reflection on Anderson: like the rest of the cast he is excellent. But it seems he is being asked to portray a different character in each scene. It is a strange and uneven piece of direction.

I may be nitpicking, like a Strictly judge about to be drowned out by boos. The cast are fantastic throughout and for a preview performance, which this is, it is truly exceptional.

Adrian Dunbar owns every inch of the stage, whether brawling, fast-talking, dancing or stomping around in giant trainers and ill fitting pants. He is a hare-eyed hero, suddenly; desperately wanting to escape, without realising that his tail is, and always has been, trapped in the door.

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Doc, though deftly written, could have been a half-baked comic relief but in Laurence Kinlan’s hands he becomes the most subtle and complex character in the play: a levitating savant evicted from his night-class and a holy fool with Sybil like powers of prophecy who never-the-less really loves his chips.

Frank Grimes is wonderful as the gruff and kindly Maurice. Kate Stanley Brennan has the hardest job to do in that her role is the engine of the plot despite Aimee lacking her own power. But Stanley Brennan lends her a taut, wary quality throughout, a very real prickliness and truth, and in the end she finds her own way to be free and to be rid of the men who clamour around her.

Conor McPherson has written and staged a furiously paced and very funny play, brilliantly realised by an exceptional cast. It also features the songs 'Ascension Day' and 'Myrrhman' by the band Talk Talk blasting out into the stalls. And that can only ever be a good thing.

The Night Alive runs at the Lyric Theatre as part of the Ulster Bank Belfast International Arts Festival until October 31. For further details and booking information visit www.lyrictheatre.co.uk.