ConorMcPherson's Shining City takes place in the Dublin consulting room of newly-qualified therapist Ian, following his fortunes and those of his first client John in five intense scenes over the next eight months. The play opens with John in great distress after seeing the ghost of his recently-dead wife Mari – incongruously accompanied by the chimes of an ice-cream van - and ends with him moving on and out of their marital home towards a new life.
But while John heals, his kindly therapist, who has recently left the priesthood, is in a turmoil of his own. After his first meeting with John he breaks up with his partner Neasa, with whom he has a child, and to whom we hear he has returned by the final scene – but in between we also see him nervously picking up Laurence, a young prostitute, and it is clear as the door closes behind John for the last time that Ian’s troubles are far from over.
Though Ian is never off the stage, the play’s dramatic heart is in John’s stories, verging on monologues – of how his wife died and of her ghost’s appearance, of his awkward encounter with a married woman, and of his catastrophic visit to a brothel.
Robert Calvert's John holds the audience extremely well during these long narrations, and convincingly suggests a trajectory from barely articulate shock and grief to poised self-knowledge. Director Zoë Waterman keeps the focus tight in John’s early ‘confessional’ scenes, with Patrick Bridgman’s Ian studiously neutral, Calvert’s John curling into himself, and both men hardly moving from their chairs.
The intensity and clarity of these scenes contrast with the more obviously emotional fireworks of Ian’s encounters with his two significant others. The scene with Adam O’Brian’s Laurence is tender and funny, with Ian’s hyperactive nervousness accepted and soothed, followed by a gradual moving into closeness and embrace. A scene featuring Sarah Groarke’s Neasa is paradoxically less gripping; as it has the most backstory to get through, and as a break-up scene is the most obviously ‘dramatic’. Perhaps because of this the actors give us broad-brush emotional and physical dynamics rather than the production’s characteristic attention to what is going on beneath the words.
Zoe Waterman's production is gripping and this is not easy to achieve as Shining City is a complex and moving play about the ways we are so often, in John’s words, "just barely hanging in there" – which will make you think twice the next time you hear an ice-cream van.