Review: The Night Alive, Donmar Warehouse

“What, in the name of Jaysus, is going on?” 

With their summer programme, the Donmar opted for a Conor McPherson double bill and so following on from the extremely good revival of The Weir is a new play from the Irish playwright – The Night Alive. And it is unmistakably familiar territory – ruminative meanderings in an isolated Irish setting, probing into the delights, depths and depravity that humanity can stretch to in extraordinary circumstances but also in the day-to-day living of life. 

Well into middle age, Tommy is a chancer, skirting along the fringes of life in the bedsit he rents from his elderly drunken uncle as he tries to keep his ex-wife and kids at bay and make a success out of any number of crackpot schemes dreamed up with his pal Doc. When he comes to the rescue of the battered Aimee and brings her back to his abode to recuperate, she opens the door to the redemptive possibility of a new world but alongside the hope that she offers, comes a very real sense of danger. 

And it is this ominous edge that provides the dramatic tension in McPherson’s own production of his play, a creeping sense of menace that counters the customary banter that we’re used to. Michael McElhatton as the dopey Doc is brilliantly comic and moving in the same hangdog moment and Ciarán Hinds is extraordinary as Tommy – a haunted depth in his eyes suggesting he’s capable of great things yet knows they will never happen for him. 

Yet something didn’t quite click for me with The Night Alive, certainly not in the way that The Weir did. I found it curious rather than compelling – were the playtext cheaper I would likely have bought one as I wouldn’t mind reading it to soak in the lyricism of McPherson’s text as there’s an obtuseness to much that happens, an elusive almost dream-like quality (might the final scene be a fantasy?) that forces its audience make its own decisions about what is left unsaid and unexplained, and there’s a fair bit of it. 

But jokes about turnips, dance routines to Marvin Gaye and the wielding of some domestic appliances ensure that there is rarely a dull moment in Soutra Gilmour’s cluttered but expertly realised set. Caoilfhionn Dunne is suitably haunted yet grounded as the pragmatic Aimee and the Gleesons threaten to become the new Irish acting dynasty with Brian (son of Brendan, brother of Domhnall) making a glowering UK theatre debut here. Intriguing rather than essential, but definitely worth a punt on the £10 ticket deal I’d say. 

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes (without interval) 
Booking until 27th July

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