David Ireland has had a very fruitful relationship with the Finborough Theatre in recent years and so it is no surprise that after a first outing in Glasgow earlier this year, his latest play comes to London in the hands of several of his regular collaborators, notably Max Elton as director. Ceci Calf once again provides the set design, which makes an arresting impact even before the play begins – a kitchen table laid for breakfast, a tiled floor, and two curved bookends of walls covered in pebble dash, enough to indicate a house in a Belfast suburb.
Matthew (Matthew Blaney) is a young wannabee actor going through his lines before heading off to London for an audition at RADA. But it is just after his father’s funeral and his uncle Ray (Stephen Kennedy) has stayed over to make sure he gets to the airport. The action begins as Matthew rehearses the opening monologue from Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’, in an exaggerated English accent very different from his local one, immediately raising questions of identity that will run as a rich seam through the play. Ray offers his services as an ‘everyman’ audience for the final run-through, and that provides the key to unlocking their exchanges, and calling into question whether Matthew will in fact take that flight.
What follows is a very well written script, full of Ireland’s trademark wit and gift for dialogue that is both memorable and believable as the real words of his characters, always a hard target to keep continually in the crosshairs. In addition to the themes of identity and the differences/similarities between acting and real life in Belfast, there are plenty of secrets to be uncovered on both sides (which I won’t reveal here), and interesting commentaries on both Shakespeare and other authors. Northern Irish history and the Troubles appear, inevitably, but well-integrated into the drama without heavy-handedness. There is also the familiar contrast and conflict between youth and experience, and the tug between loyalty to home and the need to escape it.
None of these themes overstay their welcome leaving the play at just the right length for its subject matter. It is worth stressing this point simply because so many new plays since the end of lockdown often seem to come in at ninety minutes when they have really covered all their materials from every angle after an hour. It is a rare pleasure to find a new work that is just right in both proportions and in lightness and deftness of touch.
It receives skilful playing from the contrasted personalities and manners of the two actors. Blaney is reserved and anxious and insecure but willing to fight his ground, growing in stature and determination as the action progresses. Kennedy presents a grand front of surface charm and self-deprecation but then expertly allows the confidence of an older man to ebb away like the air escaping from a balloon. By the end boundary lines have been rearranged in a satisfactory way but without pat solutions.
I would offer two minor reservations. Given that the action is set the day after the funeral of Matthew’s father, we did not get to see or feel very much of the effects of grief. This is an issue in the writing as much as in the playing, but minor adjustments in each might allow this element to register more plausibly than it does right now. Connected to that, I would expect that the give and take of the dialogue to bed down further in the course of the run. It is often the curse of press night to record the moment when a production still has elements of work in progress that you know will shortly be resolved. In this case, once the actors are a little more in the groove, we will doubtless hear more clearly the varieties of pace, mutual interruption and application of the brakes that is there in the text on the page.
Overall, this is an impressive evening with excellent production values and two fine central performances. The press night audience laughed a lot while feeling the pathos keenly too. It was also yet another vindication of the merits of this small performing space in framing and intensifying chamber-scale theatre.