A young woman picks at her nail polish and lets the flakes drop into the gaps. Another bites the skin around her nails, with a cigarette ready rolled between two fingers of the other hand, prepped for a short journey. The doors open and they step on. They sit on opposite sides of the carriage, ignoring each other.
Dylan Coburn Gray’s swirling Citysong is set in Dublin, with the set a mirror cracked into the shape of the city’s streets. I have never been to Dublin, but I wonder if I were to go, whether I might recognise some of it now. On the tube home, I can’t stop equating this staged city and my own. Coburn Gray fills it with the stuff that itches at us all in a capital, where loneliness looms and anxiety can swell in the streets like a blocked drain, where firsts and lasts happen everyday, and where you can feel full and hollow in a moment.
I’ve only ever seen Coburn Gray’s work before in relation to Irish company Malaprop. His trademark softness is there, but without the intellectually tricksy, trippy brashness the company tend to lean towards. Here, in this collaboration between Soho and The Abbey Theatre, the script is liquid. The language is indulgent, the words the fat skimmed off milk. I imagine there is a particular pleasure for the actors to wrap their minds and mouths around them, the twisting alliteration and wordplay.
A young man gets on the tube and stands in the middle of the carriage. He starts to apologise. His name is Daniel, he says, and he doesn’t have anywhere to sleep tonight. Does anyone have any spare change? He’s holding a book. The cover is ripped off. I think it’s a crime thriller. No one looks up. He goes to the next half of the carriage and repeats the same speech.
Citysong is not a big plot-focused piece. It’s one night following one family, back and forth in time, bumbling past other characters in their peripheries. Omniscient narrators lace the generations together, stepping in and out of character like a hand fishing through water, detailing how we change and crack and grow, how attitudes alter, and how some things remain the same no matter what the year or what our age. Under Catriona McLaughlin’s twirling direction, the cast seem effortless, telling the story with such generosity: Amy Conroy, Jade Jordan, Blaithin MacGabhann, Daryl McCormack, Clare McKenna and Dan Monaghan. They delicately catch the miniscule exactitudes of daily life in our relationships to others: the irrational rationale we use, the things we leave unsaid, the knowledge we accumulate of another and the loss we feel when we can no longer use that knowledge on them. The characters never exist alone, always in relation to each other. Occasionally they’ll catch a glimpse of themselves in the cracked set, and it will take a moment before they realise it’s their own reflection rather than their parents’.
The train doors open. Two people hold hands as they hop off. A woman leans her head on a man’s shoulder. Someone practices another language on their phone. A man takes off his glasses and pinches the bridge of his nose. He places the glasses on his knee, next to where his partner’s finger gently, absentmindedly runs along his leg.
As we jump up and down in time, the characters grow through stages of life – big and small. A first dance. A first love. A first child. Time falls away as everything and nothing happens at once. It’s underscored by Adrienne Quartley’s soundtrack – gentle techno like spitting rain – so delicate you barely notice it other than the soft shiver it traces up your arm. Everything’s tender. Everyone’s bruised. This, they say, is the pinch in the hourglass. They capture a moment and keep it hanging there, letting you bask in it all. The whole evening feels like it’s building, waiting, readying itself for something.
Daniel gets off the carriage. Two friends chat. A woman holds onto her suitcase as it sways with the train restarting. One man stretches his back between two poles. A woman wriggles her wedding ring. Someone else gets out a book. I stand up before we get to my stop and watch as my distorted image wobbles in the dark doorway. For a moment I don’t recognise myself. The train pulls to a halt and I step off and head back through the streets of my city, with another still ringing around my mind.