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Theatre review: The Night Alive, Donmar Warehouse, London


The summer belongs to Conor McPherson at the Donmar Warehouse. Hard on the heels of Josie Rourke's pitch-perfect revival of his most acclaimed play The Weir, the Irish dramatist now directs this beautifully-acted world premiere of his latest piece, The Night Alive

Its protagonist, Tommy (magnificent Ciaran Hinds) is a fifty-something chancer, a well-built man who has gone to seed and is every bit as shambolic as the detritus-strewn, run-down bed-sit he rents from his uncle in an Edwardian Dublin house. 

Estranged from his wife and children (whom he staves off via mobile phone calls and unkept promises), Tommy scrapes by on the margins with his van and menial shifting work, dreaming up harebrained, get-rich-quick schemes with his dopey, even more hapless side-kick Doc (the splendidly funny and sweet-natured Michael McElhatton). 

The play opens with a gesture of charity as he offers shelter to a bloodied young woman, Aimee (Caoilfhionn Dunne) whom he has rescued from assault by her ex-boyfriend. She stays to hide and to convalesce, giving Tommy manual relief (she's on the game in the outside world) in lieu of rent and in a blundering, comically ramshackle, semi-ignominious way, there's a sense that fate is proferring a fresh chance to these seeming no-hopers. 

But then Aimee's desperate past catches up with all of them in the shape of Brian Gleeson's prissy but deeply disturbed and disturbing Kenneth and it looks as though Tommy's initial act of compassion will be a salient case of no good deed going severely unpunished.

McPherson is a master at suggesting the loneliness and the unappeasable demons of shame and despair that stalk our lives under the bantering, drink-fuelled conviviality and at intimating the human hunger for – and dread of – the numinous.

These gifts are richly apparent again here. Jim Norton brilliantly captures both the interfering uncle's triumphantly censorious disappointment at Tommy whom he reared as his own child and the terminal bleakness of widower, weaving around drunk at four in the afternoon after an anniversary service for his wife was attended by only eight people. 

A gentle giant emitting a constant patter of quiet-voiced, propitiatory blarney, Hinds affectingly hints at a thwarted genuine grace and decency in Tommy, the compulsive scapegrace. But the play relies too much on small recuperative jumps in time that have the effect of making you wonder whether you have partly imagined the extent of the violent horror and darkness at its core.

The ending too (is it real or a fantasy?) seems bet-hedging rather than ambiguous. A fine evening but not top-flight McPherson.

To 27 July; 0844 871 7624