Sitting on a pile of wooden crates at what looks like the mouth of a cave are three men. They are the shades of life – an enthusiastic youth, a man battered by the realities of middle age, an elderly man in his twilight years. As they start to tell their stories you wonder at first if they are the same man – are we skipping in and out of key parts of an individual’s life? But no, they are just random, ordinary men, talking about life and love, about what you get, and what you don’t, and how you cope with that.
Conor McPherson’s Port Authority, ably directed by Tom Attenborough, is witty and wry, managing to often be very funny but also moving and gently romantic. The three leads, who do nothing but sit and narrate their own tales, are pitch perfect. Andrew Nolan as Kevin is all youthful energy, regaling us with stories of flats shares and parties, of a time in your life when a trip to the supermarket can seem novel and romantic and fraught with possibilities rather than the grind of domestic routine.
As Dermot, it’s hardly surprising that Ardal O’Hanlon has masterful comic timing, but he also exhibits a pleasing pathos, an unkempt shaggy dog of a man whom life can only surprise when it starts –albeit temporarily – to go well, and his tale of being disastrously unprepared for success is the funniest of the three, but also the most tragic. Rounding out the cast, John Rogan’s performance as pensioner Joe is delightfully mischievous. Here is a man enjoying the petty rebellions of his twilight years, the small misbehaviours that tell him he still, at the end of his time in a nursing home, can make some statement of freedom, even as he considers the road not taken, the love not seized
The production is enormously well served by the venue, Southwark Playhouse’s aptly named Vault. Francesca Reidy’s set, abandoned crates and wooden pallets, sits at the neck of two dark railway tunnels that seem to stretch out endlessly behind it like history, regularly shaken by the rumble of the trains overhead. This could be a shipwreck, an abandoned warehouse, this seeming haphazard collection, evocative in its simplicity. It ties in beautifully with the innate Irishness of the piece; these may not be tales of immigration or dispersement, but these men are Irish to their bones, inhabitants of a nation of storytellers whose culture is shaped by diaspora, by lives in transit, a people who have been raised to carry their history with them.
But for all its pleasures, Port Authority seems both too slight and, conversely, overlong. As we switch from one man’s monologue to another, it feels like any connection between them comes too late and is too little; the fact that we are looking at the small disappointments and consolations that make up an average life rather than any great tragedies gives the piece a reality and tenderness that is genuinely affecting, but it means it lacks any real urgency, so at times the piece starts to drag: I felt like each man’s segment could have lost a ‘turn’ and the production would have been better for it. As it is, you could feel you are being regaled in a pub by an amiable drunk, and you didn’t catch his name, and it doesn’t really matter, because even as you allow yourself to be charmed, you know that by tomorrow you will barely remember his tale of ordinary woe.
Read the Exeunt interview with Tom Attenborough.