Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Night Alive - bags, boxes, blood & bodies (Lyric Theatre until 31 Oct as part of Belfast Festival) #BelFest

Belfast International Arts Festival opened not in a concert hall but instead with a play written and directed by Conor McPherson. And it put actor Adrian Dunbar back on the Lyric stage in his underpants as his career began* many years ago.

The Night Alive begins with an empty downstairs studio flat in Dublin. Two beds, a table, a kitchen in the back corner, brown curtains hanging over the grimy windows, and clothes scattered over every surface of the floor … except where there are already bags, boxes, probably cockroaches, and perhaps even a dead body or two.

It’s where middle-aged Tommy is living – estranged from his wife – renting the room from Uncle Maurice (Frank Grimes) who lives upstairs. And like his life, the dwelling is a mess.

A naïve reading of the play’s setup is that Tommy (played by Adrian Dunbar) is a nice guy who likes to rescue lost causes. Take his wee mate Doc – short for Brian! – as an example. Played by Laurence Kinlan, Doc is a bit slow on the uptake and Tommy keeps an eye out for him, throwing him some work and sometimes letting him kip over on the spare bed.

Coming home late one night Tommy is in the right place at the right time to stumble upon a bloodied Aimee (Kate Stanley Brennan) – he later discovers she’s a prostitute – who’s been beaten up. He brings her back to the flat, helps her clean up, and cares for her while she recuperates from the violent ordeal. Out of this random encounter spins chaos like a vacuum cleaner stuck on reverse, squirting dust and pain into Tommy’s world.

More likely, Tommy’s ideas about sexual gratification and not going all the way parallel the extent of his feelings of responsibility to those he assists and mimic the limits of how far he’ll actually go to help the quarry whom he targets with his brand of support. It was probably no accident that lonely Tommy was walking through the red light zone with his bag of chips. But before he had time to get his wallet out, fate introduced him to Aimee and his help gene took over. While he uses Doc on some of his shed-clearing jobs, his unwillingness to pay him in cash perhaps shows who is getting most benefit out of the relationship.

The first 50 minutes of the play run at a frantic pace. The cast fire their earthy dialogue at each other, well used to its rhythm after a long run in Dublin. It’s as if Adrian Dunbar is on Speed as he whizzes around the flat. Uncle Maurice sounds scary and grumpy but has a warm heart, sometimes fortified by a wee drink.
You know we've got to find a way / To bring some lovin' here today

The strains of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On aptly sums up the situation. They’re a forlorn bunch, and everyone could do with some comfort and dependable companionship.

The mood changes when a pale-suited Kenneth (Ian-Lloyd Anderson) walks into the flat and a silent menace hovers over the characters as the play heads towards its ambiguous conclusion after a few too many false endings.

Aimee’s character is short changed and the playwright thwarts talented Kate Stanley Brennan’s chances to round out the damsel-in-distress figure into the intriguing tortured soul that she must be underneath all the bruises. Instead Tommy is allowed to retain the focus as good battles evil and he decides whether there could be life outside the confines of his filthy flat, or whether it’s true that “You can’t save everybody”.

One scene flows into another as one set of characters walk out a door and the next scene’s complement of cast walk in another. There’s no guarantee how Tommy will be dressed or what he’ll be doing anytime he comes back out of the bathroom. There are visual gags aplenty along with some beautiful musical sequences that effortlessly show off Adrian Dunbar’s singing and dancing abilities. Friday night’s audience hollered and giggled at the scripted shenanigans.

The play is a co-production between the Lyric and Dublin Theatre Festival, one of an increasing number of north-south collaborations that is creating and sharing good theatre in a more sustainable fashion.

The Night Alive is a joy to watch: funny, painful, shocking, and delivered with really confident acting that lights up the script in the island’s dingiest flat. It’s one of my favourite pieces of Belfast theatre this year and runs in the Lyric Theatre as part of Belfast International Arts Festival until Saturday 31 October.

To find other picks from Belfast Festival, check out my preview post.

* Apparently there’s photographic evidence up on the walls of the Lyric of Adrian Dunbar’s first state of undress, while the latest escapade is now indelibly etched into the minds of The Night Alive audiences!

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