The first night of Conor McPherson’s ‘The Night Alive’ kicked off the Belfast International Arts Festival which runs until November 1st. After running in both London and New York, the Lyric Theatre are hosting the Irish premier of the play in co-production with the Dublin Theatre Festival.
‘The Night Alive’ follows a few days and nights in the life of Tommy, a middle-aged man separated from his wife and children. Living less than comfortably at his uncle Maurice’s residence, right from the onset Tommy’s life appears the very image of squalor. Such dilapidation is showcased right throughout the play with a delightfully detailed set that displays two single beds either side of a small room, a dirty kitchen beside the back door and a mantlepiece crammed with junk. Akin to a particularly grotty student house, the detailed set is immediately striking, sufficient for the duration of the play and sets an atmosphere of hard times.
The play kicks off in the aftermath of Aimee being attacked on the streets with Tommy and a blood soaked Aimee entering through the back door. With barely enough money to keep his room lit up Tommy is immediately shown to be a character without much money to his name but a willingness to reach out and help others despite this. Offering up what little living space he has so that Aimee has somewhere to stay, an unlikely friendship of sorts begins.
‘The Night Alive’ is comedic from the onset despite unfavourable circumstances and subject matter. It makes light of a heavy situation when Tommy offers Aimee some Bonio dog biscuits and confesses that he doesn’t actually own a fridge.
The passage of time within the play is executed with expertise through atmospheric lighting that allows the audience to differentiate between morning, day time and evening. With a darkened set but changing lighting to be seen outside the set’s window ‘The Night Alive’ conveys the reality of the atmospheres of early morning, late night and everything in between with striking proficiency. Although perhaps a small detail, it really enhances the play and easily allows the audience to witness the mastery of stagecraft that McPherson is exhibiting.
The morning following Aimee’s stay at Tommy’s sees the arrival of Tommy’s “associate in the business” the bumbling but lovable Doc. Tommy and Doc are a duo that could somewhat accurately be described as Del Boy and Rodney, and Withnail and I, meets Father Ted and Dougal. Arriving with a bag of stolen turnips and potatoes Doc is a comical character from the onset. Some delightfully Irish humour is provided when Amy asks why he’s called Doc and finds out he’s actually called Brian but got called Doc because Brian was just “a bit long.”
Arriving back again in the middle of the night with a bag of chips to share between the three of them, Doc becomes something of a “third wheel” beside Aimee and Tommy’s blossoming friendship. They both sit opposite one another for their chips on an extremely low key date type situation. This is comically accentuated through Doc offering them pepper from a giant pepper mill which is fundamentally at odds with the decrepitude of their situation.
When Aimee and Tommy run out to the shops to check the lottery numbers, Doc is left on his own to tidy up. It is at this point that the play hinges between comedy and utter tragedy when an unnamed intruder enters the house. The unassuming Doc simply believing he is a friend of Tommy’s doesn’t question the suited gentleman. When the thud of the hammer hits the back of Doc’s neck, the play enters the realm of the hugely unsettling. This unexpected and troubling development from a henceforth comedicplay is extremely jarring and serves to show just how engrossing the largely unremarkable lives of these ordinary individuals had become.
Any comedic elements that follow in the duration of the play are marred by this tragic attack on an innocent character. Through Uncle Maurice’s bleak meditation on life, death and raising Tommy from when he was boy, the question “What happened to all the sweetness?” rings through with particular significance. Although Maurice appears at first as a sensible character that counterpoints the unhinged and scattered life of Tommy, in these moments that force us to contemplate life he is shown to be just as clueless and frustrated as everyone else.
‘The Night Alive’ weaves together comedy and tragedy impeccably well. Although shocking, the tragic element lends something more substantial to a play that deceives its audience to be almost wholly comedic in its genre. Despite bleak situations and unsettling actions, what shines through the most is the human strength the characters show to carry on regardless and with hope of something better in the face of constant adversity.