Octagon Theatre, Bolton
Mark Babych's swansong production, after a decade at the helm of Bolton's wonderful Octagon Theatre, is Conor McPherson's all-male Faustian comedy set around drunken Irish Christmas celebrations, The Seafarer.
Sharky has returned home from working down south after an emotional entanglement with his boss's wife to look after his brother Richard, now blind after falling into a skip when drunk, over Christmas. On Christmas Eve, Sharkey, who is trying to stay off the booze, clears up the debris from the previous night's drinking between his brother and their friend Ivan. Later in the day, Richard has invited Nicky back for a Christmas Eve drink which upsets Sharkey as Nicky now lives with Sharkey's ex-wife and he eventually turns up with the mysterious Mr Lockhart. The men settle down for a Christmas Eve session of hard drinking and poker, but, unknown to the others, Sharkey is playing Mr Lockhart for much higher stakes than the pile of Euros on the table.
Like all of McPherson's plays, The Seafarer is a very dark comedy about storytelling and ghosts from the past returning, fuelled by heavy drinking, with some beautifully-observed touches to the dialogue and vivid characters. On Patrick Connellan's brilliantly-seedy set, Mark Babych's perfectly-paced production brings out all of the character of this play, including some quite repulsive touches of behaviour that are quite believable in such company.
Michael O'Connor gives an exceptional performance as moody but tolerant Sharkey who does all the work and also gets all of the stick from everyone around him. Peter Dineen is perfect as the disgustingly awful but very generous and sociable Richard, despite stammering through a few lines and an Irish accent that at times was so thick as to be almost impenetrable. There are some wonderful characterisations as well from Brendan Charleson and Leigh Symonds as Ivan and Nicky. Fintan McKeown as Mr Lockhart, however, seems rather awkward onstage with empty, declamatory speech and gestures and none of the secure confidence that the character implies.
Babych has chosen to go out on a high note with this raucous and thoughtful comedy from one of Ireland's leading young writers even with McPherson's own wonderful production for the National Theatre which toured to The Lowry just two years ago still clearly in memory. It was a good choice, as this mostly great cast has come together to create a powerful and very entertaining piece of adult theatre to end the season.
To 27 June
Reviewer: David Chadderton