Dublin Carol, Trafalgar Studios 2, London (3/5)


The straggling Christmas decorations look more than a little half-hearted (mostly bare spruce), but then the setting of Conor McPherson's play, first seen in 2000, is an undertaker's office and it would be tactless to the bereaved to put on a flashier show.

Besides, the fiftysomething protagonist isn't feeling too full of Yuletide cheer. John Plunkett had already wrecked his life through drink before the kindly owner of this firm took pity on him and offered him a job. But now his benefactor is in hospital having tests and John, who can still demolish a bottle of Jameson's in short order, faces a lonely weekend.

Revived now in an assured production by Abbey Wright, the play works a bleak variation, flecked with grim humour, on Dickens's Christmas Carol. Instead of a visit from the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Future, John is confronted by Mary, the daughter he has not seen for ten years who comes to summon him to the death-bed of his ex-wife; and in the shape of Mark, his temporary assistant and the nephew of his saviour, he is faced with a youth who is perhaps about to embark on the kind of commitment-dodging mistakes that were his own undoing.

Flushed and sweaty, scrubby-bearded and with shame flickering in the unhealthy glitter of his eyes, Gary Lydon transmits a keen sense of the dark hinterland behind the avuncular blarney and the whisky-fuelled accounts of benders and the binges attempted self-justification. John is the kind of man who finds it easier to admit to grandiose feelings of guilt (at his very existence, say) and to clutch at its probably primal causes (domestic violence when he was a child) than to look in detail at his dreadful history of paternal derelictions of duty. Pain, incredulity, anger and helpless love at war on her wonderfully legible face, Pauline Hutton's excellent Mary twists your heart when she recalls how she consciously developed a slightly false reputation at school for being “an eejit in my own right” because it made her feel close to her absconded father to be thought like him.

It's good that the play has John at first dispensing catastrophically bad advice about women and relationships to Rory Keenan's likeably callow Mark. And in the subtle way he seems to rescind this at the end as he readies himself for the hospital, you feel the faintest stirring of redemption. As seasonal as a dread-inducing hangover, this is a well-timed revival.