Donmar Warehouse, London WC2
Opened 22 February, 2005

The strength of this tale is in Owen McCafferty’s smart adaptation, which relocates JP Miller’s original teleplay from 1950s New York to centre now on a Belfast couple living in ’60s London.  Its weakness is that, amidst all the emotional complexity and horror of spiralling alcoholism, the story also carries an air of moralising lecture.  In that respect, it feels as outdated as some of its period soundtrack music.

Donal and Mona meet at Belfast airport, where by chance each is on their way to a new life in 1962 London. They fall in love immediately, and he persuades her to take her fateful first-ever drink.  Through the rest of the decade, we see them move from social to compulsive drinking, and on to the point where it is more vital to them than friendships, career, marriage or their young son.  They lay off it once, but then relapse.

Owen McCafferty, writer of the lauded Scenes From The Big Picture, has done a marvellously thoughtful rewrite job.  He makes Donal a bookie, and uses the legendary racehorse Arkle as a symbol of magnificence; at the end, Donal takes his son back to a Belfast which we know will see 25 years of Troubles.  Above all, Donal and Mona have a rich, multi-layered relationship that goes beyond the bottle, but focuses on it.

Director Peter Gill brings the same unflinching eye to this script that he has shown in many of his own plays.  Indeed this may exacerbate the problem. Gill doesn’t rose-tint the characters’ lives and feelings. But, presented so neutrally, their history begins to feel rather like an instructional parable.  He denies meaning to, but after joining Alcoholics Anonymous, Donal sometimes sounds outright sanctimonious.

Peter McDonald and Anne-Marie Duff carry the play’s 100 uninterrupted minutes with strength and sensitivity. They make it clear that this isn’t a black-and-white story of wasted hopes.  And yet, for all their best efforts, they can’t dispel the sense that we’re being asked not to identify with Donal and Mona, but to contemplate their misfortunes for our moral improvement.  Beautifully done, but finger-wagging.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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