A Whistle in the Dark

Tom Murphy
Royal Exchange, Manchester, production
Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn

Production photo

Tom Murphy's savage story of an Irish family living in post-war Coventry hasn't aged a day since its premiere forty five years ago. In fact, the universal themes of Abuse, Manhood and Morality set in the gladiator-arena of a family living room are as fitting in today's society as they ever were.

Laurie Dennet's battered open-plan set, with numerous chairs, scattered rubbish and beer bottles on every surface, somehow still manages to feel claustrophobic, especially with many of the actors on stage at any one time. This proves tricky in the group scenes, as the restricted space led to much of the physical interaction between the characters becoming predictable which in turn takes away the visceral power of the scene climaxes.

The play opens on chaos as Michael and his wife Betty, played by Esther Hall, prepare their house for a visit from Dada, the father and patriarch of the family. Much of this first section was inaudible, with the brothers entering and exiting the room and a gabble of different accents trying, and failing, to command the space. It was like a yard full of cockerels, with an awful lot of noise and not much else. But the action finds its stride and, as the individual characters reveal themselves, there are some very fine performance.

This is especially true of Patrick O'Kane, playing Michael. He is almost lost in the confusion of the first half, his brothers boisterously establishing themselves, but as the rot sets in and the tension in his marriage flairs up, his inner turmoil over his wayward family bubbles to the surface and the moral voice of the man is truly heard. It is therefore a pity that the lack of chemistry between him and Esther Hall gives their relationship nowhere to go, except back towards the violence and aggression that they are so against. At times, their rowing seemed more focused on releasing tension than portraying the heartbreaking loss of intimacy in their marriage.

Betty is more than a match for her quietly courageous husband, and her feisty and passionate confrontations with Dada and the brothers often take on a menacing air. Kieran Gough is also excellent as Desmond, the sensitive youngster of the pack whose desperation to live up to his brother's expectations provide the tragedy of the piece. Damian O'Hare is menacing as Harry the gang leader and Fergal McElherron adds charm, vibrancy & spirit as Mush.

But it is Gary Whelan, in a fantastically well-judged performance as Dada, who holds the piece together. In his entrance alone, he teaches everyone what being comfortable in a space is truly about. He is the puppeteer who pulls all the strings. So when his influence over his sons begins to wane and Harry establishes himself as new leader of the family, the notion that the abused becomes the abuser is fully realised.

The pathos lies in the emptiness behind each character. Beneath the macho swagger of Dada is a man desperate to confess his sins, as he does with Betty as they await Michael's return from the brawl. And again in his final lament over the body of Desmond, one sees the abuser sanctifying himself before the abused, and the iron men left as mute statues and as puppets with no master.

Although this perhaps is the expected end to the story, again one can't help feeling the deflation of that tension that took so long to be established. I wasn't sure if the ending really did justice to that build-up. I wanted to feel the menacing shiver down my spine as Michael's fate lies broken on the floor before him and to feel the full horrific results of what calculated manipulation and violence can do, but there are no neat endings here. It is Murphy's own protest at the senselessness of it all that is truly heard and perhaps that is the only message we are supposed to come away with.

The production runs until 6th May.

David Chadderton reviewed this production in Manchester

Read Philip Fisher's interview with writer Tom Murphy at the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe

Reviewer: Natasha Nicoll

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