The Loft, Royal National Theatre, London SE1, then touring
Opened 9 September, 2002

Part of me is convinced I used to know the real decrepit Belfast hotel-bar which served as the basis for Owen McCafferty's Closing Time, but in truth it could be just about anywhere and any time. Only the cause of dogsbody Alec's simple-mindedness (an incompetent assassination attempt) and the story of the place having been bombed years ago hint at the Troubles; only Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? on the TV sets the action vaguely in the present. But the shambling husks of humanity presented are pretty much universal.

McCafferty's play brings to a muted end the Transformation season in the National Theatre's newly created Loft space, before embarking on a brief tour. The title works on several levels: it refers not only to the end of a particular sodden day, but the imminent closure of the hotel after landlord Robbie's failure to borrow money to keep it afloat, the end of characters' self-delusions (four of the five are burdened with broken or breaking marriages), and in a real sense the end of their lives.

There's no glimmer of redemption on offer here. Not for Robbie. Not for his semi-estranged wife Vera, desperate for someone to give her the strength to walk out. Not for Iggy, several days into a determined bender. Not for Alec, bullied in the hostel where he lives. Not for Joe, the hotel's only resident because he can't bear to set foot in his own house since his wife left long since.

Like a Glenn Branca symphony, McCafferty picks his key and his rhythm and sustains them with minimal variation through the whole piece. The cast, playing on Rae Smith's terrifically dilapidated set, mesh entirely with the script. Jim Norton brings to the role of Robbie the same considered underplaying as in the Conor McPherson plays in which he has most recently made his mark; Pam Ferris as Vera wears a face that has long since forgotten how to smile; Patrick O'Kane gives precise gradations to Iggy's drunkenness, meticulous in his attention to detail even when his character is almost beyond speech.

But there's a problem with writing about bleak, dreary people in a bleak, dreary setting. The more accomplished you are at it, the bleaker and drearier your own work will be. And McCafferty is accomplished. Its very success in terms of his vision is bound up with its failure as compelling drama.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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