Conor McPherson’s new play – The Night Alive at the Donmar Warehouse – is a skewed love story played in a minor key. The creeping sense of quiet alongside the grubby set and dim lighting create a mesmerising intimacy that sucks the audience in the way a black hole sucks in the matter all around it.
At the centre is Tommy, a broken-down bear of a man played with a compelling sense of tragi-comedy by Ciarán Hinds. The play is set entirely in his Dublin flat, a single floor in a once grand town house that is well on its way to becoming a hovel. There is mould on the walls, plates in the bathroom and dog biscuit boxes but no dog. Tommy is the master of this tumble-down world, able to protect his slow-witted friend Doc – “It’s short for Brian” – (Michael McElhatton) and stave off the prying attention of Maurice, his stern landlord upstairs, a subtly-nuanced performance by the mighty Jim Norton.
Into this finely-balanced ecosystem stumbles Aimee (Caoilfhionn Dunne) with a bloody nose and a mysterious past that feels like it doesn’t have very far to run to catch up with her. This noirish thread feels the most under-developed element of an otherwise convincing story with the malevolent Kenneth (Brian Gleeson) coming off more like a plot device than a fully formed character. It’s probably because everything else is so real that he seems so archetypal, though the things he does are often disagreeably real.
There is a lot of unpleasant darkness here to pick through, but also some stunning moments of light. Tom and Doc have the rapport of a veteran double act and when they momentarily fall into step with Aimee, dancing to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”, there is a true sense of joy. It sent a palpable ripple through the audience and had they asked everyone to get up and join in it would have been extremely hard to resist. This is a play about feelings rather than ideas and, assessed with that in mind, it’s a triumph.
By Stuart Black
The Night Alive is at the Donmar Warehouse until 27 July. Tickets £7.50-£35 + booking fee. For more information and to book see the Donmar website. Londonist saw this performance on a complimentary press ticket.