A National Theatre production
Arts Theatre, Cambridge, and touring
It was only after the interval that I felt The Seafarer had really bedded in, but it was certainly worth the wait. On a limited national tour after a hugely successful opening at the Cottesloe, Conor McPherson's new play, while no theatrical landmark, delicately navigates a course between fireside yarn and gritty drama.
Like all of McPherson's work, The Seafarer is hazy with drink, and from the beginning it was pretty clear that McPherson's mystical, moralistic tale of loneliness and friendship sails rockily on a sea of Irish spirits. The fable centres around two brothers, Sharky and blind Richard, drink and play cards downstairs on Christmas Eve in Sharky's grimy, coast-side front room - yet when a friendly, boozy card-game is joined by mysterious stranger Mr. Lockhart (whose elliptical name is a rather obvious clue to his function) things take a sudden and unsettling turn.
The play itself feels like a real, whisky-soaked Irish yarn, with something of A Christmas Carol stirred in as a thematic mixer; and it took a while for this supernatural concoction to really mix with the totally natural, modern-day naturalistic acting: Ron Cook's first revelation as Lockhart almost provoked the wrong sort of laughter from the packed audience . Yet by the start of the second half, the play had hit its stride and caught the audience in its grip so firmly that the inspired twist that pivots into the dénouement provoked near-euphoria, a huge relief-fuelled laugh rolling around the stalls for almost thirty seconds.
The acting ranges from good to flawless. Jim Norton is completely in control of a stunning, Olivier-winning performance as cantankerous old bully Richard, blue eyes staring out into the darkness of the auditorium; Karl Johnson gets right under the gritty skin of crumpled, earnest Sharky, and Conleth Hill, in a serious bid to be crowned British theatre's greatest living chameleon, gives a perfectly judged, beautifully detailed performance as a bulkily ineffective Ivan.
That some of the comic direction is a little heavy-handed, and that Cook, while never poor, never quite convinces as the root of all evil can be quickly forgiven for the gentle brilliance of the writing and the superlative ensemble playing of the final moments. As the white light of dawn pours into the grubby, worn-down room (lighting designer Neil Austin: exceptional) to see Norton, Hill and Johnson effortlessly transcend the grittiness of their surroundings in a finale of resounding warmth is to feel twice redeemed by a brilliantly unusual and genuinely moving production.
Reviewer: Robert William