All There Is

Fahy Productions and playwright Jonathan Bailie imagine a good deed gone horribly wrong

In an eerie cinema noir style opening, an image on a gauze screen places the audience in the driving seat of a car, cruising silently around the dark, shadowy streets of a sleeping city. A stark piano soundscape enhances the bleak urban landscape. The car changes gear then speeds up as it heads out into the countryside, white lines whooshing across black tarmac. Then, a squeal of brakes.

JP Conaghan's tense, spare direction satisfyingly sets the scene for the nightmare scenario that is to follow in Jonathan Bailie's unsettling thriller, All There Is, developed and co-produced by Fahy Productions – who work to 'stage Northern Irish voices and confront social issues in rural and urban communities' – and The Playhouse.

Familiar blurred images of city walls, stone-arched gates and quaysides leave us in no doubt that the city into whose underbelly we have been pitched is Derry~Londonderry. The voices and accents of the three central characters combine to create a strong sense of place, yet Bailie has created a cautionary tale for our times, which could find a resonance in just about any large town or city anywhere in the world.

The image fades to reveal a human figure, a middle-aged taxi driver who has just made probably the worst decision of his entire life. What would any decent person do if he or she spotted a young woman lying unconscious at the side of a deserted road in the early hours of the morning? Probably exactly what this driver has done – pick her up and take her immediately to the nearest hospital.

How could this unlikely Good Samaritan possibly have suspected that this random act of kindness would plunge him into an unfamiliar and horribly threatening world of sexual violence, drug addiction and domestic turmoil?

Micky Kelly's cabbie, Man 1, is a lonely guy, who has an eye for a pretty girl but whose success rate in relationships is at an all-time low. Then he makes eye contact with Woman, the duty night nurse in the hospital's A & E department, at which point he begins to dare to hope that, at long last, his luck may be changing.

But Nicky Harley's jaded, stressed-out portrayal reveals a single woman beset with her own problems, in the shape of a much-loved mother, now in the latter throes of dementia and entirely dependent on her exhausted carer.

As the two of them struggle to ascertain the identity of the injured young woman and the cause of her injuries, an angry stranger, Man 2, explodes into their midst, adding to the routine chaos of the casualty ward and fixing the hapless driver with a beady, accusatory stare.

Off his head on coke and booze, Francis Harkin's characterisation is extremely disturbing. This is a man who has lost all sense of reality, whose idea of a loving relationship revolves around domination, violence and threats, whose mounting paranoia will turn him from a spitting, cursing mad dog into a mindless murderer.

Conaghan instills high production values into the narration of this interlocking set of unpleasant storylines, which unfold in a plain black box set, animated only by mobile cubes and a chiarascuro lighting design. Inside this state of permanent semi-darkness are revealed the despairing lives of three individuals, whose paths have unexpectedly crossed when one goes looking for someone to blame for the damage done to his girl.

All three actors are fitted with microphones, not only to enhance the clarity of the mounting hysteria but, more effectively, to distort and disorientate their words and voices, thereby augmenting the sense of a good deed gone grotesquely wrong.

While a less-is-more production approach has been taken, the same cannot be said of the script, whose swirling plot suffers from a relentless deluge of words and a long-drawn out ending. On the whole, the small cast handles these verbal demands competently, but one can't help wishing that they could be put out of their agony in a ghastly scene of redemptive violence, which continues long after its shock value has been registered.

Bailie's dark, powerful portrayal of moral degeneration and impossible choices contains some welcome flashes of humour and compassion. While fearing and loathing the effects of substance addiction, one also feels genuine concern for the sanity of those who have been dragged into it.

In this instance, however, the challenge is whether one can maintain that concern when confronted by the insane, inhumane punishments inflicted on innocent victims by this particular junkie. Yet, finally, there is hope, a very faint ray of it, emanating from the two barely alive individuals, desperate to make a connection and now joined in a bloody tryst, which they are doomed only to be able to share with each other.