Dublin Carol

Conor McPherson
Trafalgar Studios 2
(2011)

There is little doubt that Conor McPherson's work benefits from claustrophobic stagings in small spaces. His intimate views of talkative wasters struggling to come to terms with their own weaknesses seem even more telling when you are practically sharing a room with them.

Gary Lydon's John certainly fits the bill. He is a hardened drinker whose best friend is the latest bottle of Jameson's.

Long ago, he was saved from the streets and his own weakness by Noel, an undertaker with a mission to help those that will not help themselves.

We meet middle-aged mortician John on Christmas Eve as he is forced to contemplate mortality and his own failings, in the company of two youngsters.

The first is Noel's nephew Mark, played by Rory Keenan. He is a lad who is filling in on the graveyard shift until his studies start. Like John, he is more partial to a wee drink than his unseen girlfriend Kim, who seems pretty desirable from the initial discussion. Nevertheless, Mark picks this supposedly festive season to ditch her.

Breaking up two encounters between the men, Pauline Hutton's Mary appears with even less cheering news. She is John's daughter and reappears in his life after a ten year gap to announce the imminent demise of his wife, not seen for even longer.

Mary also has news of John's son Paul, now living in England and possibly showing signs of following in his old man's foot stumbles.

For just over an hour, this trio looks into the depths of misery and mortality from the perspective of those that have and will see more unhappiness than anyone deserves.

Abbey Wright demonstrated while directing Hywel John's Rose during this year's Edinburgh Fringe that she has an affinity with small casts addressing tough subjects.

On this occasion, she ensures that the speech always seems hesitantly naturalistic guaranteeing that these characters come across as people you could bump into in any downmarket Dublin pub.

However, her sense of theatre is strong too, so that you develop sympathy for all three but at the same time get to enjoy some black humour.

Conor McPherson's strength is in making the ordinary man seem worth considering in depth. His portrait of John's reflections on life and death are slyly entertaining, aided by a subtly moving portrayal from Gary Lydon.

This second production in the 2011 Donmar Trafalgar showcase is an unorthodox but timely seasonal offering that might be the stage equivalent of spending the Yuletide season volunteering in a homeless hostel. As such, it won't be competing with panto or the innumerable Christmas Carols but deserves attention for its intricate and realistic characterisation.

Playing until 31 December

Reviewer: Philip Fisher