BWW Review: Grieving for the dead in ARLINGTON [A LOVE STORY]

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Fresh from co-writing the musical play Lazarus with David Bowie, the awards-laden Irish dramatist Enda Walsh presents the world premiere of his latest work: Arlington [a love story].

Justifiably regarded as one of the most inventive of contemporary playwrights, the chameleonic Walsh counts stage adaptations (Once), opera (The Last Hotel), and screenplays (Hunger) among his frenetic back catalogue.

When the curtain pulls back on Arlington, we see a beige and white clinical room containing a row of blue seats, an empty fish tank, a ticket machine, an electronic display, an old, wireless radio, and, barely visible, a high window. Most importantly, there is a surveillance camera in each corner and a microphone mounted on a wall.

The huge room dwarfs the waif-like Isla (Charlie Murphy). When she begins speaking into the microphone, the curtain pulls back all the way to reveal a bumbling, stand-in technician, Young Man (Hugh O'Conor), in a claustrophobic office crammed with monitors.

Isla has been imprisoned in this room for years and is required to recount how she came to be here. As she speaks, Young Man observes her and concocts video images - displayed against the back wall - that depict the stories and memories she describes.

Despite her initial misgivings, they form a tender understanding (they like the sound of each other's voices) and, although they are separated by a wall, the characters often stand physically adjacent to each other. The play touches on the sacrifices demanded of love in this dystopia.

When Murphy strikingly mimes a daily routine (getting dressed, washing her teeth, etc.) to Baby I Love You, it both evokes Isla's loneliness and anticipates the play's wordless second act: a bruising, disorienting dance by the track-suited Young Woman (Oona Doherty).

But the haunting effect of the opening of the dance - a figure enveloped in darkness desperately pounding her feet against the floor - is diluted by the extended length of the sequence.

Channelling the influences of Beckett and Orwell, Arlington has all the hallmarks of Walsh's earlier work: the entrapment of Ballyturk, the repetitions of The Electric Ballroom, the silences of Hunger, and the performance evaluations of The Walworth Farce.

If this is classic Walsh terrain, however, he also seems to be mapping some new territory. Grainy, charcoal projections suggest bodies hanging from trees, chilling declarations ("We don't kill people the way you think.") and talk of "thousands of us holding tickets waiting" hint at international terrorism and the refugee crisis.

Arlington, a Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival co-production, is an absorbing cocktail of lush string compositions, scrupulously atmospheric lighting, and unsettling video design.

O'Conor communicates Young Man's endearing charm and his desire for connection in a role that doesn't always convince while Murphy delivers a commanding portrayal of Isla by realising both her weariness and her wonder.

If the top note of Arlington is a palpable ferocity, playing underneath is an embryonic compassion. But leaving the theatre, there is an overwhelming sense of numbness: the play relishes Walsh's trademark obscurity but lacks the manic humour that distinguishes - and, crucially, assuages the detachment - of his singular canon.

Arlington [a love story] plays at Leisureland, Galway, Ireland until July 24 as part of Galway International Arts Festival.

Photo Credit: Charlie Murphy.

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From This Author Brendan Daly