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The Seafarer

Conor McPherson
National Theatre Production
Theatre Royal, Bath, and touring
(2006)

Production photo

The Seafarer docked in Bath, trailing clouds of glory, following a wildly-acclaimed run at the National Theatre, the second stop on a UK tour. And indeed it is a beautifully written, impeccably acted and very beguiling piece of entertainment which shifts deftly from pathos to comedy to menace.

It is also, however, a piece of blarney; a superior shaggy dog story with more than a nod to A Long Day's Journey into Night. The play opens on the morning of Christmas Eve in a house which would make even Kim Woodburn and Aggie MacKenzie, BBC's grime-busting divas, tremble. Its owner is Richard Harkin, incontinent; blind; impossibly demanding and - in the words of Pepys - more than somewhat "foxed". His brother, Sharkie, who has come to look after him, is two days on the wagon and unhappy with it. Ivan, a friend, is not and is indeed, "terrible", since he has the mother of all hangovers.

Drink runs through Conor McPherson's plays like Blackpool through a stick of rock and it would be very far from libellous to suggest that his work (The Weir, Shining City) reflects a deep familiarity with alcohol. It fuels a lot of the humour of the first half which is largely concerned with the hapless trio's attempts to get out of the house before night falls in order to "get a few things in" - chiefly whisky and beer - and have a pint - or seven - down the pub. However, good-humoured banter about a ghost, improbably sighted at the off-licence, hints that this Christmas might be one seen through a glass darkly.

The mood shifts, late on Christmas Eve, with the arrival at the house of Nicky, a ne'er-do-well, doubly unwelcome to Sharkie since he is now living with his ex-wife, and the mysterious stranger, Mr Lockhart, both here for a game of cards. It would be difficult to go any further into what follows without giving too much away. Suffice to say that all is not what it seems and things are about to take a very sinister turn indeed. McPherson enjoys himself hugely playing with stock elements from the melodrama: the game of cards; the mysterious stranger and the sudden storm which springs up as the long day's night wears on into day.

The writing is superlative, brilliantly catching the rhythms and cadences of the characters, much as Mamet did, with the lightness and suppleness of a maestro. It is often also deeply poetic, as in the observation that "Drink stops the brain from cranking; stops a man from going into the forest" and, before the game of cards, "Ten is like a shining tower; the twentieth century; it looms out at you". The acting too is superb by all five actors although Jim Norton, best known for his role as Bishop Brennan in Father Ted, takes the honours with his outstanding performance as the incorrigible but deeply Falstaffian Richard. If ever a man embodied Yeats' dictum that "An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick, unless soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing for every tatter in its mortal dress", it is him. Also outstanding is Conleth Hill as Ivan, a comic masterclass, and one a world away from his equally brilliant and Olivier Award-winning performance in Michael Frayn's Democracy.

And yet as entertained as I was by the play and the production, within an hour of the curtain, doubts began seeping in. The play it seems to me is fundamentally untrue, howsoever the verisimilitude of the dialogue would persuade us otherwise. The characters in The Seafarer put away quantities of alcohol unheard of outside a late Hemingway novel and yet still continue to function remarkably. Hangovers are hilarious attended by none of the guilt and remorse experienced in real life. The destructive effects of alcoholism - for that is what is depicted - on relationships, on the individuals themselves, is touched on but lightly and, again, only as the subject for our laughter. Accepted on its own terms, however, The Seafarer is magnificent entertainment, wonderfully staged; wonderfully performed and directed with huge finesse by the playwright himself.

Philip Fisher reviewed the production when first seen at the National Theatre.

Reviewer: Pete Wood