Despite its ominous title, and playwright Conor McPherson’s reputation for producing work populated by ghosts and devils, his 2013 play The Night Alive seems – at least at first – to be firmly rooted in reality. 50-something Tommy (David Cox) rescues Aimee (Bethan Boxall) from a violent attack by her ex-boyfriend, and brings her home to the room he rents from his widowed Uncle Maurice (Dan Armour). With nowhere else to go, Aimee agrees to stay for a few days, but while her presence proves a comfort to the lonely Tommy, it also brings trouble – not least for Doc (Eoin Lynch), Tommy’s friend and business partner (of sorts) – when her ex Kenneth (Howie Ripley) tracks her down.
I say it seems rooted in reality because there are definitely a couple of moments that are open to interpretation in First Knight Theatre’s new production, bringing both Acts 1 and 2 to an ambiguous close and leaving it to the audience to decide for ourselves what exactly we’ve just seen. In fact, both script and direction are clever enough that it’s possible to go back over the whole play afterwards, remembering little details and wondering if they meant more than they appeared to on first sight.
One element that is very real, however, is the isolation and desperate need for human connection displayed by the characters, each of whom is damaged in their own way. Tommy’s estranged from his family and getting by doing odd jobs with Doc, who has a mild learning disability and keeps getting kicked out by his sister and her boyfriend. The unconventional but clearly genuine friendship between the two men lies at the very heart of the play, and is movingly portrayed by David Cox and Eoin Lynch, with a generous and welcome sprinkling of humour to lighten the mood.
Bethan Boxall’s Aimee adapts quickly to her new surroundings, and offers a different kind of companionship, allowing Tommy a brief escape from the monotony of his unsatisfying daily life – and it seems he’s willing to pay almost any price to keep hold of that opportunity. Finally, there’s Uncle Maurice, played by director Dan Armour, whose gruff exterior and authoritarian manner can’t quite hide the fact that he’s still mourning and blaming himself for the death of his wife, or that he desperately wants Tommy to stop wasting his life and appreciate what he’s got while he still can.
Into all this quiet drama steps Howie Ripley’s Kenneth, in the first of two brief but memorable appearances, and instantly the play takes on a different energy as he prowls restlessly around Tommy’s room, taking in every detail and rambling about the darkness outside. We know something bad’s going to happen, but when it does it’s still unexpected enough to leave the audience sitting in shocked – and, if I’m honest, slightly perplexed – silence as we head into the interval. Both this moment of drama and the one that follows in Act 2 are well acted and directed, but don’t seem to fit within the rest of the play, particularly as neither event is really discussed again by the characters once the immediate aftermath is over. This is so odd, in fact, that it feels like it must be deliberate – so perhaps this is one of those details that will take on new meaning after a few days’ reflection.
Putting it all together, The Night Alive is a poignant, humorous and intriguing portrayal of five unhappy people whose lives are changed in one fateful moment. Whether that change ends up being for better or worse is left as something of an open question, along with much else that happens during the play. If you’re in the mood for a high quality production that doesn’t give you all the answers, The Night Alive is well worth a visit.
The Night Alive is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 9th June.
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