Dublin Carol had a lot to live up to. As Conor McPherson's follow-up to the hugely successful The Weir (which won last year's Olivier for Best New Play, transferred to Broadway and continues to run in the West End at the Duke of York's), it was always going to be watched carefully. Could the young Irish ingenue pull it off again? The fact that it was also chosen as the piece to relaunch the Royal Court in its homecoming season at Sloane Square (after two years in exile during refurbishment) heightened interest even more.
In the latter case at least, pressure was alleviated somewhat by yet another building delay which pushed the Court's re-opening date back by another month. And so, with some hasty rescheduling, Dublin Carol receives its premiere on a makeshift stage in the bowels of the Old Vic, before transferring (hopefully) to Sloane Square in February 2000.
All credit, too, to the cast and crew for pulling off the dramatic change of venue at such short notice. Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, the end result is no triumph in the face of adversity. The fact is that McPherson's script simply does not meet the lofty expectations heaped on it.
Dublin Carol is what is best described as a long, short play. At a running time of one hour and forty minutes without an interval, it manages to drag an evening out interminably while, on stage, very, very little transpires.
It's Christmas Eve in the shabby offices of Dublin undertaker John (a gruff and greyed out Brian Cox). He returns from a funeral with his young assistant Mark (Andrew Scott) to share a whisky and fight off loneliness. Mark leaves and John's daughter Mary (Bronagh Gallagher) arrives unexpectedly to tell John that his long estranged wife is dying of cancer and ask that he visit her in hospital. Mary leaves, John passes out, Mark returns, Mark and John dance around past mistakes.The end.
There's unquestionably some good material here. John's detailed description of the vicious psychological circle of alcoholism is harrowing, and his final gesture of first dismantling and then replacing the office's tatty Christmas decorations is extremely poignant. But these fine touches are underutilised.
The episodes recounted from John's sodden past are isolated and sketchy. We learn little of his motivation for either drinking or his relationship with the elusive Carol of the title. As a consequence, there's no force for redemption, as was so eloquently achieved in the other recent play about an alcoholic Irish parent, Sebastian Barry's brilliant Our Lady of Sligo.
All the elements are here for a repeat success - strong performances, the moody direction of Ian Rickson (who also directed The Weir) and Rae Smith's spookily atmospheric setting (complete with Paul Arditti's whispers of rain and church bells in the distance). All elements, that is, save one - a top-notch script.