BWW Review: THE NIGHT ALIVE - Sweeter than Heaven, Hotter than Hell

For a playwright prone to dabbling in the supernatural, it's no surprise that Conor McPherson's drama - co-produced by Dublin Theatre Festival and Lyric Theatre - finds the night alive with mysterious visitors and magical transformations.

When loquacious entrepreneur Tommy (a wily Adrian Dunbar) ushers beaten prostitute Aimee (Kate Stanley Brennan) to safety, his cluttered bedsit - its Edwardian elegance buried by a jumble of household objects in Alyson Cummin's rigorous set design - could be taken for a refuge.

Tommy's intellectually disabled friend and business partner Doc (Laurence Kinlan, disarmingly blurring the line between comedy and drama) also sleeps here, recording his dreams and the scientific theories he hears on the radio. One of the hypotheses, that of 'time waves' and the vibrations felt from another period, feels apt; these are easily the pedlars of Sean O'Casey's tenements if they were around today.

This is without O'Casey's glorious speeches and overt political commentary; McPherson's investigations turn inward on the soul, unafraid to show his characters hell or heaven. In his direction he keeps that otherworld tantalizingly suppressed, with Zia Holly's sorcerous lighting oscillating between super-real daylight and spectral set pieces: the hellish glow of an electric heater; lilac moonlight beaming ghostly through the door.

This paranormal current finds its way into the drama in believable ways. When Aimee's violent boyfriend Kenneth (Ian Lloyd Anderson, holding the room in suspense) arrives, he puts on a pair of vampire fangs to intimidate his victim. Given his wild mindset, it seems plausible.

But McPherson is wise to prevent the hocus pocus from overtaking the reality of his drama, which you can't help but see staged against the backdrop of the current homelessness crisis. While Tommy rents from his widower uncle (Frank Grimes), the individuals he offers sanctuary to have nowhere to go. The coming together over a chip dinner, with the careful arrangement of cutlery and plastic bottles of mineral, feels ritualistic.

The weak point of the play is the construction of Aimee, who typical among McPherson's female roles will sooner define the subjectivity of male characters before having any herself. Despite having little to say, Stanley Brennan is gunning for it here, carrying subtle signs of trauma in her body and shooting powerful expressions of resistance.

There is better reward in the pained wait for change, exemplified by the grieved figure cut by Grimes. McPherson dashes time to deliver a transformation often toted but sometimes unfathomable: the sweet sight of recovery.

The Night Alive runs at the Gaiety Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival until 4 Oct. For more information and tickets, see the Theatre Festival website.

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From This Author Chris McCormack

Chris McCormack is a theatre critic based in Dublin. He blogs on and writes for A Younger Theatre, Irish Theatre Magazine and the Arts (read more...)