Walking into the Brockley Jack theatre, the stage is artfully dishevelled in a way that expertly reproduces a lonely, lived-in residence. Stacks of newspapers rest under weathered mattresses. The bedroom is scattered with plastic bags and lazily discarded clothing, all under the watchful eye of a framed picture of Marvin Gaye. A full-bodied TV set rests in the corner, transporting you back to a hazy memory of 1995. Written by Conor McPherson of recent Girl from the North Country fame, Night Alive was written in 2013 and in this same year, was awarded the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play 2013-14. It’s temporally jaded in a way that highlights the socio-economic isolation of the characters that inhabit the bedsit; torn between memories of happier times and an uncomfortable present tense. The play is set in a Dublin bedsit which protagonist Tommy (David Cox) shares with his adopted Uncle Maurice (Dan Armour) who occupies the top floor. Tommy’s business partner and philosophising sidekick Doc (Eoin Lynch) struggles to embrace his independence in the face of his learning disability which inhibits his ability to work, and live without the company of friends.
The play opens with Tommy consoling Aimee (Bethan Boxall); a young woman he has just saved from a brawl between herself and a seemingly unknown assailant. He tends to her wounds, scorning her recklessness in, “You can’t just be getting into cars with fellows you don’t know”. After we discover that Aimee’s assailant was her ex-boyfriend, Tommy exercises his naivety as he asks, “How can you be with a fellow like that who hits you?” Tommy is financially unstable but holds high hopes of entrepreneurism, over-selling out-dated cigars to pub-goers with the help of his trusty Doc. Upon hearing that Aimee is “on the game”, he is quick to employ the young woman for sex work at her flat-rate of €40. Soon after, he swiftly becomes infatuated with her, boasting, “That was A-1!” Tommy’s excitement and outmoded language highlights his socio-cultural isolation and is un-shakingly reminiscent of an over-enthusiastic teacher. Aimee’s ex-boyfriend, Kenneth (Howie Ripley), enters in an oversized suit, playfully swinging a hammer at Doc. He appears deranged and proceeds to insert plastic vampire teeth before bludgeoning his associate, entirely unprovoked.
McPherson’s dialogue is astonishingly natural, and the combination of this with the realist setting makes the play somewhat voyeuristic. Whilst accents are some-times a little shaky, they are on the whole quite convincing. Speaking to Maddy Costa in 2006, McPherson explained his tendency towards writing ‘distant’ female characters, saying, “I’m a man, and I experience life as a male, and that real, raw truth of your life is male for me”. In spite of this confession, the play’s only female character, Aimee, is an exceptionally moving performance from Boxall, sketching the complexities of her character’s unspoken trauma. Had Aimee been a sex worker from the beginning? Or had Doc mis-identified her and she felt coerced into undertaking it? The final image is that of Tommy and Aimee some time after the play’s grizzly climax. Tommy stares quizzically at her ghostly form as the lights dim.
This is a play that explores mortal, economic, generational and romantic struggles. The only character who tries to rationalise these is Doc, his existential and spiritual reflections splicing conversation of day-to-day survival. Ultimately, his theories are coolly dismissed as the ramblings of a lonely idiot.
The Night Alive is playing at the Brockley Jack theatre until 9 June 2018
Photo: Robert Piwko