Terminus, Young Vic, London


Tortured trio left in limbo on the Liffey

As if sanctioned by their spiritual and literary forebears, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, contemporary Irish dramatists have no fear of "automatic" writing, interminable monologues, word games, cheap rhymes, bouncing verbal clusters and unpredictable structures.

All of these traits are clear in Mark O'Rowe's production of his own Abbey Theatre play – revived for a world tour after its Dublin premiere in 2007 and Edinburgh Festival run the next year – about three Dublin characters, named A, B and C, caught up in a vortex of unlikely incident, murder and sexual excess.

Combining the rollercoaster vitality of Enda Walsh's Cork fantasies and the dark anguish of Brian Friel's Faith Healer (without that play's profound spiritual agony), Terminus isolates its three protagonists like souls in a Blakean vision of Purgatory, assailed by troops of angels and swarming worms and demons, doomed to writhe in a halfway house of memory, terror and helplessness.

A is a Samaritans volunteer unwisely embroiled in a patient's case that runs parallel to her estrangement from B, her own sexually rhapsodic daughter. C is a murdering psychopath, unconnected to either, but who embarks on a death-defying escapade in a runaway lorry that judders into A's life, by chance, on the Dublin quays at top speed.

A and B reach a point of reunion, while B and C are linked by destiny on the top of a building-site crane, one falling to oblivion after a riotous night out, the other dragged to the dark in a pact with the devil that yields an unexpected, crowd-pleasing performance of a Bette Midler song.

There's something a bit forced about O'Rowe's writing, which careens along with a lot of hit-and-miss about it. The prose is self-consciously sing-song in the Joycean manner, but the rhyming is repetitive and frequently banal, losing pungency the harder it tries.

The actors, however, are another matter; they are faultless. The two women – the long-haired Olwen Fouéré and her gamine opposite and offspring, Catherine Walker – rise like molluscs from shells in Philip Gladwell's extraordinary half-lighting to grab the audience by the throat.

And between them, Declan Conlon as C struts confidently into his fighting and raping, his car rides and carnage, his date with dark destiny, like a Wild West gunslinger, sucking on Lockets and stocking up with a roll-call of assorted sweeties before the show-down in a runaway lorry.

Each actor speaks in rotation, three times. This is an ambitious attempt to re-cast the narrative form as in Friel's Faith Healer, in which the same story of spiritual loss and redemption is told in different versions by three characters in just four long spates. But O'Rowe doesn't achieve the same revelatory uplift; this is mere story-telling with apocalyptic overtones.

Still, it's better than yet another tale of social woe unravelling in a predictable linear fashion. Language is out on a spree, as Kenneth Tynan once said of Brendan Behan, though it is not as bracing, witty or vaudevillian as in Behan, or even Beckett. But having broken through with a monologue drama ten years ago – the brilliant Howie the Rookie – O'Rowe confirms that he's in for the long haul.

To 16 April ( www.youngvic.org)

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