Port Authority is a play about love, but not the play you expect. Many things about this nimble, eminently subtle piece are unexpected. In one of Conor McPherson’s most sophisticated and human pieces, the delight is in his lightness of touch.
Port Authority surprised me because all I knew of McPherson’s work before seeing it was The Veil, which I did not particularly warm to. Port Authority almost felt like it was penned by a different writer. Set in the recent past, it depicts the lives of three generations of Dublin men, quite separate, yet in some way connected. The links between the stories are reminiscent of the subtlety of Daniel Kitson’s storytelling, and deeply satisfying because they are so incidental and unexpected.
The three stories escape the cliché and sentiment that might come out of such a form, and while they demonstrate their tellers’ life experiences, they are by no means archetypes. McPherson weaves together immediacy and reminiscence, finding the epic in the mundane. For me, Kevin (Andrew Nolan) and Joe’s (John Rogan) stories were the most enticing, combining a good mix of the comic, the wistful and the joyful.
Dermot’s strand of the story, played expertly by Ardal O’Hanlon, was the least compelling and believable of the three. For all this, it fully justified its place in the piece. O’Hanlon surprised me in his rugged, somewhat haggard weariness, demonstrating a depth of character that delivers much more than his frothy onscreen parts suggest. His tale brings a sharp, black comedy, and sometimes an overpowering bleakness to counterbalance the warmth and nostalgia of the other two strands. Without it, the play may have strayed into the realms of the sentimental.
Undoubtedly the star of the production is John Rogan as Joe. Among three truly excellent actors, his was the only performance in which I never saw the cogs, the mechanism, the thinking behind the part. Admittedly, this is rare for O’Hanlon and Nolan, but Rogan’s performance is utterly compelling, and utterly human. I could imagine him as no one other than Joe, and his performance has the rare quality of extending, telescopically, through the past and future of the character. He shows you Joe’s bones, and his performance felt true and sad.
For a show still in preview, Port Authority is remarkably polished. Directed sparely and precisely by Tom Attenborough, the piece as a whole has few flaws. However, Nolan’s performance still needs to settle a little. He seemed the most uneasy of the three, but delivered warm and engaging work. I am sure he will develop his performance during the course of the run.
The set and lighting design deserve high praise. Francesca Reidy’s stripped-down stage of piled pallets was complemented beautifully by Joshua Carr’s under-stage lighting and subtle, warm colour. A wonderful moment in which form and content were united occurred at the beginning of the piece; making use of the whole fantastic depth of the Vault at the Playhouse, Carr illuminated the two tunnels that stretch behind the stage. It was almost like looking back into the characters’ pasts before we had heard them speak.
Without hesitation, I can recommend Port Authority. It is beautifully written, beautifully performed and aptly directed. It moved me more than a piece of theatre has for some time, and above all it has the ring of truth about it. McPherson and Attenborough have hit upon something that speaks to the human.
Port Authority is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until 18 February. For more information and tickets, see the Southwark Playhouse website.