PORT AUTHORITY
New Ambassadors Theatre, London WC2
Opened 22 February, 2001

Conor McPherson continues to be one of the most consistently interesting and powerful playwrights in the British Isles today, but he does so while not writing what would normally be understood by the term "plays". The Weir was not just McPherson's breakthrough to a wider audience: it also seemed as if he was gradually moving away from his previous mostly monologue-based work and towards writing dramas in which people interact with each other before our eyes. In this respect, Port Authority is not only a step backwards, but causes us with hindsight to re-evaluate The Weir as simply ringing some minor changes on the monologic style which continues to be McPherson's sole territory.

In the earlier play, in effect, we can infer that the writer considered the exchanges between the characters as no more than a kind of verbal frame for the stories at the heart of the piece. Here, once again, we have just three men one young, one middle-aged, one elderly standing on stage telling us their respective stories, five minutes or so at a time. The three stories are linked, but far more casually than in McPherson's similarly-structured This Lime Tree Bower, in which we heard essentially the same events from three different viewpoints; here, each man's tale is self-contained, with just one or two minor references that throw out guy-ropes to show that it is taking place in the same Dublin as the others.

The stories are standard McPherson territory: basically, they are misses. A young bachelor and a 70-year-old widower tell of their misses in love, a middle-aged man of his miss in material life. In each case they tell of strange, almost random events generating compelling, impassioned sagas: that the crucial occurrences and people in our lives are not the ones we think or expect, and are not the ones we're actually with. Young Kevin, astounded to find himself in love with his female housemate, tries and fails toreconcile the nobility and honesty of his feelings towards her with the scuzzy world of desperate pub punk bands he inhabits. Middle-aged Dermot finds a plum job fallen into his lap and whisking away to at least the edges of the world of international showbiz, but, almost in an older version of McPherson's Rum And Vodka, he drinks, pisses and pukes it away, and ultimately learns that it was in any case all a mistake, meant for his namesake. Old Joe alternates his accounts of the mundanities of the residential home in which he now lives with his recollections of the woman he, like Kevin (his grandson?), suddenly realised he loved in passionate vain.

The tales are written with the same kind of "scrupulous meanness" by which James Joyce characterised his own style in Dubliners, although they are more engaging and less astringent in the telling than Joyce's short stories. For me, though, the smallest of points caused disproportionate annoyance. As the trio share Eileen Diss's deserted jetty, they are cued to their next bit of storytelling by a bell dinging once, twice or thrice as appropriate for each man. At one point, elderly Joe laughs his final line, then breaks down and moves away upstage... only for the beautiful moment to be shattered by that damn bell commanding him back, twice, as if he were Winnie in Beckett's Happy Days. It's a discordant note of schematic metaphor in the otherwise straightforward, natural world of McPherson stories.

As against that, he remains unmatched both in spinning yarns and in letting the narrators' characters emerge through their telling of the tale. Stephen Brennan gives a stoical but robust, even scummily alluring character to his tale of professional failure; Eanna MacLiam's Kevin tries and fails to clothe himself in the sassiness of the young, so that his sensitivity insists on showing through; Jim Norton is remarkable in finding subtleties of nuance and modulation in Joe's tale. No great advances, then, but another gem of its kind.

Written for Irish Theatre.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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