Reviews West End & Central Published 22 June 2013

The Night Alive

Donmar Warehouse ⋄ 13th June - 27th Jul 2013

Things unsaid.

Stewart Pringle

Coming from a writer so often occupied with stories and storytelling, Conor McPherson’s new play is remarkably reserved. His characters, the bumming slob, the slow but loyal friend, and the bloodied woman who swings suddenly into their lives, all speak more through what they leave unsaid: are most eloquent through their reticence. It makes The Night Alive a quietly mysterious play, a million miles away from the gothic surplus of The Veil or the garrulous myth-making of The Weir.

Ciarán Hinds plays Tommy, a drifter with nowhere to drift, who lives in a squalid room in his uncle’s house and does odd jobs with his simpleton friend Doc (Michael McElhatton). He takes in a young girl who’s been beaten by the side of the road, and they tentatively explore what they could mean to one another. Both their lives are somehow stunted, but McPherson’s play yearns with the possibility that somehow these two broken halves could make a whole that feels something like happiness.

Hinds’ performance is detailed and heartfelt, making Tommy an instantly likeable and eventually rather heroic figure. It’s matched toe to toe by Caoilfhionn Dunne’s portrayal of the wounded, toughened Aimee, who does hand-jobs for €40 and brings a quavering light into Tommy’s world. Jim Norton is effortlessly brilliant as the irascible uncle who finds Tommy and his life the latest disappointment in a world growing short of dignity.

The night is a constant presence, with its connotations of reverie and regret, as well as its fears and occasional eruptions of joy. Tommy’s love of Marvin Gaye is the catalyst for a sudden burst of rum-fuelled dancing, but we’re never allowed to forget what else might be lurking in the shadows around the house.

McPherson’s direction is as nuanced as his script, packing story with both humour and a persistent edge of menace. His pre-occupation with hauntings comes into play during a terrific scene with Doc facing up against a threatening midnight visitor, who stalks him, werewolf-like, across the room. It’s a striking moment of gothic terror as Kenneth (Brian Gleeson) inserts a set of Halloween-incisors and tosses a claw-hammer from hand to hand.

In part The Night Alive is a story of what ‘women are, or what they do’, as Philip Larkin put it; what Aimee’s femininity means within the resolutely masculine squalor of Tommy’s life. If that sounds out-dated or insufficient, it’s because it partially is. But it also feels appropriate to the world which Tommy has found himself in, one which rejects adulthood and responsibility but in doing so has also rejected hope, and the future. His room, an exquisite squalor by Soutra Gilmour, is like a child’s bedroom, with its piles of pulp cowboy novels and James Bond paperbacks. Tommy wants Aimee to be all things, within his limited and romanticised conception of women, as other and as lost to him. Aimee’s lost something too, and though McPherson perhaps cheats us out of a full exploration of that, his affecting play makes their meeting and their unspoken courtship a very moving experience.


Stewart Pringle

Writer of this and that and critic for here and there. Artistic director of the Old Red Lion Theatre.

The Night Alive Show Info

Directed by Conor McPherson

Written by Conor McPherson

Cast includes Jim Norton, Ciaran Hinds, Caoilfhionn Dunne, Brian Gleeson, Michael McElhatton




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