There’s barely a writer alive who is the best possible director of his or her own work: An outside eye can spot the dramatic and structural flaws the writer cannot or will not see. “The Night Alive,” Conor McPherson’s latest play at London’s Donmar Warehouse, is a fable about redemption and, thanks to his own watchful direction, its weakness is often redeemed by his close helming of a flawless cast that includes Ciaran Hinds. But for all the exquisite tenderness of the playing, the disappointing evening lacks a motor.
In Soutra Gilmour’s meticulous recreation of the dilapidated basement of an old Dublin house, fiftysomething, just-getting-by jack-of-all-trades Tommy (wonderfully shambling Ciaran Hinds) is attempting to look after Aimee (gaunt, troubled Caoilfhionn Dunne), a taciturn young stranger whom he has rescued from a bad beating.
He’s been rubbing along somewhat wearily with his slow-witted but genial pal Doc (beaming innocent Michael McElhatton) but Aimee’s arrival puts a degree of fire in Tommy’s belly. His feelings for her tumble out nervously, but it’s painfully clear that this awkward relationship is doomed not only because his upstairs landlord and uncle Maurice (Jim Norton) won’t approve, but because she has an abusive ex-boyfriend Kenneth (Brian Gleeson).
The Pinteresque sing-song absurdity with which Kenneth over-literally interrogates Tommy’s use of language flags up the fact, all too blatantly, that Kenneth is a psychopath. And so it proves. Yet even though the wait before he unleashes the (horrifically well-staged) violence is not long, the explosion still feels dully inevitable. It’s symptomatic of a play that has moments of tension but neither sustains nor builds them.
That’s partly to do with the way the play keeps cutting forward. Although the text isn’t divided into separated scenes, the gaps feel increasingly convenient and contrived. McPherson is avoiding providing the precise details of how these gently written, ramshackle people really fit together.
For most of the play, we’re witnessing fleshed-out, well-drawn character studies rather than developed drama. That’s clearest in reproving Maurice, a role given comic zest by Norton whose struggle to maintain authority while drunk raises laughs amid the sadness. But other than to upbraid Tommy for his poor choices and weakness, he is entertaining but, structurally speaking, surplus to requirements.
Both play and production suffer to a degree from a metaphorical as well as a literal dying fall, so successive scenes appear to be the final one.
The sad reality of Tommy and Aimee’s ultimate loss is suffused with McPherson’s hallmark compassion. It shows that McPherson is really writing about kindness and goodness. Welcome – and hard – though that is, there’s a worrying sense that even the touching final scene doesn’t fully earn its sentiment.