After playwright Owen McCafferty and director Peter Gill’s last award-winning collaboration on Scenes from the Big Picture - an epic new play, premiered at the National Theatre in 2003, in which 21 actors were propelled through a kaleidoscopic portrait of Belfast life and lives - both turn their attention now to something far more intimate with Days of Wine and Roses.
This stage re-working of JP Miller’s famous story, first written as a teleplay in 1958 and subsequently rewritten for a big screen version in 1962, could be subtitled Scenes from a Smaller Picture. In nine scenes – as opposed to the earlier play’s 40 – we follow just two characters over an eight-year period between 1962, when they meet at Belfast Airport as they’re both about to board a flight to take them to new lives in London, and 1970, when the man is packing to return home.
In the excoriating domestic drama that unfolds between those years, it remorselessly charts the fast rise and sad fall of their relationship, against the background of the alcohol that destroys it. It’s a train of addiction that begins, ironically, in the very first scene when Donal, a bookmaker’s clerk, produces a hip-flask and offers Mona, a civil servant, a drink, though she’s never drunk before. One day, he says, she’ll be able to look back on this as “a good memory – the day that I was starting out on my new life in London I met this very nice young man called Donal – I had my first drink with him and it was a laugh.”
She succumbs. They arrive in London, fall in love, and have a son (unseen in the play) called Kieran, but their drinking soon spirals out of control. Even as he begins to realise that they’ve turned into alcoholics, she’s in denial, echoing the thought that made her drink in the first place: “We have a laugh – that’s what we have – a laugh.”
In this cautionary tale, it turns out, of course, to be anything but a laugh. But while McCafferty’s script maintains a taut tension throughout as it follows this inexorable journey, it wasn’t until the very last scene that I was finally either entirely convinced or moved by the relationship between Peter McDonald’s Donal and Anne-Marie Duff’s Mona.
While Gill is usually a director I find second to none in animating social detail, this intense drama feels somehow a little muted on the wide stage of the Donmar. McCafferty’s version of Days of Wine and Roses is a woundingly beautiful play about the fracturing of a relationship, but because McDonald and Duff didn’t make me believe in it in the first place, it doesn’t resonate as strongly on the stage as it does on the page.