Take some cracking Irish characters, throw in a bitter and confusing love triangle, a terminal illness and the twilight period of life, and you get something rather special. Hugh Leonard’s 1979 A Life plays out in a small Irish town where everyone knows and watches each other closely. In this suffocating atmosphere old rivalries linger for a lifetime as the play shifts seamlessly from the present, the two old couples, to their youthful, passionate counterparts.
Hugh Ross is brilliant in the role of Desmond Drumm, an ageing civil servant who remains remarkably calm despite having only six months left to live. The plot centres on his never-forgotten love for Mary, the girl he didn’t marry. With the idea of making amends he pays a visit to Mary, played by Kate Binchy, a wish which is never quite achieved as he meets the man who did marry Mary, Lar, a man he considers to be a useless layabout. Drumm’s moralising and withering criticisms which fill the next scenes are reflected in the flashbacks to younger, equally unhappy days, creating an image of a stubborn, unchanging man who clings to his self-righteousness until the final, uncomfortable revelation.
Snapdragon Theatre’s decision to revive the work in the odd, intimate setting of Finborough Theatre is intriguing. It’s a very intense piece anyway and the emotion is heightened by the proximity to a level which becomes tiring by the second half. Some selective editing of lines would not have gone amiss. Set and props are kept very minimal, allowing for the attention to fall fully on the actors and the single wooden chair which hints at Drumm’s attempts to intellectualise Mary and neatly references his wedding gift.
Director Eleanor Rhode’s revival of this nostalgic, bittersweet portrait of provincial life is sensitive and well-cast. In places some lines are lost in the whirl of emotions and everyday life but these are rarely crucial to comprehension of the whole. At any rate, Leonard doesn’t provide all the answers, leaving us with an unrepentant Drumm and open ending which feels rather infuriatingly unresolved. The journey is pleasantly entertaining but we never reach a specific destination, tailing off instead, perhaps in a reflection of life itself.
A Life is at the Finborough Theatre until Saturday 27 of October. For more information and to book tickets, visit the Finborough Theatre website.