The Duke of Hope

Grimes & McKee put a Duke onstage, but how special is he? David McLaughlin finds out

Stay in the pub and have another drink or visit your possibly dying Dad in hospital? That’s the dilemma facing Mel (Chris Corrigan), a Belfast barfly in his mid-thirties who’s stuck in a rut and frustrated by his inability to effect a change in his life.

It’s a dilemma, rather, that faces the three aspects of Mel's character: Drunk Mel (Tony Devlin) and Shoulda-Woulda-Coulda-Mel (Tony Flynn) fight for supremacy in this bittersweet comedy from Conor Grimes and Alan McKee, co-writers of The History of The Troubles Accordin' To My Da.

The action unfolds within the confines of Mel’s minimally-rendered watering hole of choice, The Duke Of Hope. Through neat dramatic tricks of time displacement and dream sequences, we learn that Mel is an unhappy soul. Drowning his dwindling childhood promise and talents in every drop of alcohol he forces down his gullet, his conscience struggles with the twin powers of crushing self-loathing and social expectancy.

He gets on the bus every day, puts the hours in at a drudging job that he hates and only exacerbates his low self-esteem. Lacking the courage to act on his feelings and romantically proposition his colleague Martina (Claire Connor), he seeks refuge in The Hope every evening where he can grumpily curse his lot in peace. The world, it seems, owes Mel a life - and is refusing to pay up.

In a convincing lead performance as the perennially put upon Mel, Chris Corrigan shoulders the weight of his world with gusto and palpable angst. This is ably supported by equal parts humour and saddening poignancy by his drunken alter ego (Devlin) and procrastinating inner self (Flynn).

Mel’s cantankerous, cocksure drinking buddy Des (played by the convivial James Doran), bookish workmate Geoff (also played by Doran) and the poorly conceived, one-dimensional Polish barman Chris (a limited, clichéd character saved by a charismatic turn from Andy Moore) are everything Mel is not and he spits and seethes his rage at them as revenge. Or at least, he would if he could but you know, he can’t, so he doesn’t. In the end it’s his long-suffering Mum, Dad and brother who bear the brunt of his troubles, which ultimately lead Mel to one of the most important decisions he may ever face.

Along the way, the genuinely funny inclusion of Melvyn Bragg, Kurt Cobain, 'the drummer from The Corrs' and a series of cutesy gimmicks help to bring some levity to proceedings but the black dog rarely strays far from Mel’s door and the transition from light to shade is rarely natural or smooth.

Cases in point are the sequences involving his family that aim to be emotionally charged and stirring but sometimes fall short, relying on ill-fitting musical get-outs to paper over the occasional clunky cracks in the dialogue. These interludes feel forced and unwieldy, but more due to mistimed pacing of action than any fault of the players.

That said, if you can tolerate coarse dialogue, don’t mind engaging in some withering navel-gazing and fancy learning why a pair of gutter rats are the go-to oracles on most of life’s more soul-searching issues, The Duke Of Hope will provide a fine evening’s entertainment.