The Night Alive, Donmar Warehouse, London

Ciarán Hinds

“Do you want a biscuit?” Tommy inquires of the young woman he has just helped on the street, not clarifying that the cookie in question will come from a packet of dog biscuits. It’s a masterly moment early in Conor McPherson’s new play: a comic exchange that pinpoints for Tommy the sad squalor of his life as he suddenly sees it through a stranger’s eyes. The Night Alive sees the Irish playwright at his compassionate best, focusing with shrewd observation and rueful comedy on life’s casualties. It’s funny, dark, shockingly violent in places, and finally hopeful, as its main concern – the redemptive power of small acts of kindness – gradually slides into focus.

The character list reads like a particularly forlorn section in a Lonely Hearts column. There is Tommy (Ciarán Hinds), a once fine figure of a man now somewhat run to seed, who is holed up in a Dublin bedsit in spectacular disarray (design by Soutra Gilmour), pursuing one shady money-making enterprise after another. There is Doc (Michael McElhatton), his inept, sweet-natured sidekick, who sleeps on the camp bed when his sister throws him out. There is Maurice (Jim Norton), Tommy’s uncle, a brittle old stick whose haughty manner can’t disguise his terrible loneliness. And then there is Aimee (Caoilfhionn Dunne), the young woman to whom Tommy gives refuge after she is beaten up, and whose arrival shakes things up.

It’s certainly not a perfect piece: the pace is uneven and it rambles in places, while some big metaphysical speeches about black holes and the nature of time rather elbow their way in. But this matters little, because the characters created by McPherson (who also directs) and his cast are so vivid that you soon care mightily about them. Hinds, gruff and dishevelled, gives Tommy the sad, perplexed wrath of a man whose life has slipped out from under him (we learn that his business collapsed and with it his marriage) but he also suggests a rough dignity and surprising grace. There is a lovely moment when he breaks into an impromptu dad-in-the-disco dance routine to Marvin Gaye. McElhatton is touchingly funny as Doc, while Dunne is poignant as a young woman who, far too early in life, has learnt to be hard. Brian Gleeson, as Aimee’s former boyfriend, is a menacing presence. And Norton gives a gem of a performance as Maurice, whose keen awareness of how easily life is snuffed out and how little it can amount to (a mere eight people attended his wife’s memorial service) underpins the play.

In the background we sense the bigger picture: a society bruised by economic trauma and a crisis of faith. McPherson’s play is deliberately elusive but, in this shabby room, he quietly depicts a recovery of sorts, as each character grows by giving sanctuary.

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