Superb Northern Irish scribe Owen McCafferty isn’t fully on top of his game in this short, sad play about two aged Belfast laborers passing the time towards death in a London hostel. Play sits uneasily between the individual and the universal, and Rachel O’Riordan’s production feels miscalibrated for the relatively intimate Tricycle space: Otherwise excellent actors Ciaran McIntyre and Peter Gowen play most of their dialogue in near-shouts.
In past work (“Scenes from the Big Picture,” “Mojo Mickybo,” “Closing Time”) McCafferty has offered, with enormous sensitivity and insight, Belfast-set stories that move beyond the global cliches of Northern Ireland as a blighted war zone. Which is not to say his plays are known for their lightness: drink, idleness, and the personal and societal dysfunction caused by repressed conflict are predominant themes.
The same problems figure centrally here in the lives of two men who left Belfast decades ago to work on the roads and have never been back. Both are recovering alcoholics, and much of their banter involves childlike competition about whose life is more washed-up (Gerry’s liver “was as big as a dinner plate”, he brags, when the doctor told him his choices were dry out or die). Eventually, via flashback, key episodes from each of their past are played out, which help provide context for their sense of hopelessness. Approached by a lovely young woman (Alice O’Connell) in a dancehall, Gerry is so paralyzed by shyness that he blows a chance at romance and happiness (“Belfast men don’t dance,” he tell her). Iggy, we discover, is gay but was cruelly rejected by John (Francis Mezza), the young friend he comes out to, and never tells the truth again. The moment where Iggy propositions John is a crux point in the drama, but, like the production overall, feels rushed and over-abrupt, and lands bluntly.
The lonely fate of many Irish and Northern Irish laborers in the UK is a real-life phenomenon, but has also been dramatized previously in plays and on film. The low horizontal pile of shovels at the forestage of Stuart Marshall’s set, and the fact that some of the projects the men say they worked on took place before they were born suggest that McCafferty is offering these men as archetypes. But it’s hard then to know what to make of the particularities of their stories and where McCafferty sees the balance falling between individual agency and larger societal and historical forces.
There is, nonetheless and eventually, enormous power in Gerry’s final, tragically drunken monologue, delivered to everyone and no one on a noisy street (well-evoked by Ivan Birthistle and Vincent Doherty’s sound design and James Whiteside’s angular lighting). A whole life is suggested in the details he rambles away, yet it’s only because we’ve overheard the previous conversation that it makes any sense. Production doubtless succeeds in inviting London auds to consider the humanity of the homeless they pass on the street every day.