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Review: Dublin Oldschool (Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre)

Emmet Kirwan's Edinburgh hit arrives at the National Theatre for a short run

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Emmet Kirwan and Ian Lloyd Anderson
© Ros Kavanagh

A chance encounter with his homeless and heroin-addicted brother on a London street was the starting point for Emmet Kirwan's Dublin Oldschool, playing a short run at the National Theatre after winning much praise on a tour that began in Dublin in 2014. But he has transmuted that poignant meeting into a viscerally energetic work of art – part poetry, part dance, and entirely original.

He stars as the fast-talking, tight-rapping Jason, DJ and urban music fan, off on a long weekend of wild sessions, illegal highs and fierce lows, chasing the next hit while avoiding the Garda and his ex-girlfriend. En route he encounters a variety of Dublin characters, all seeking the same elusive thrills – and imagines (or perhaps has) a series of conversations with his lost brother, Daniel. Daniel and all the other chancers Jason meets are played by Ian Lloyd Anderson with magnificent and keen-eyed economy – a purse of the lips to indicate a disapproving girl, a roll of the legs to reveal the arrival of the drug-addled wide boy Dave the Rave.

Everything is described in language of raucous vigour, a torrent of words that perfectly conjure each place and every emotion in the argot of the streets it is describing, turning Jason's odyssey into a kind of drug-ravaged Ulysses or an Irish Trainspotting. It is not always easy to follow – even when bellowed through the two microphones that are the only props on stage – but if you let yourself go with the rock and flow of it, it is always quite clear what is happening and an absolute pleasure to hear.

Kirwan has a gift for the sharp phrase, the vivid image. A room containing his ex-girlfriend is "a room full of hurt and bad pastels", the heat and noise of the city "hits me face like a hot gush of piss". He's also very funny. "There's never an excuse for a man to take his top off in Dublin," remarks Jason, fiercely. But what lifts Dublin Oldschool so far out of the ordinary are the moments of self-revelation and tentative hope he discovers in those conversations with his brother, who warns him – in their final scene together – of a genetic propensity to addiction. "We're not sick," Jason replies. "We're just two fucking eijits with nothing going for us."

That gentle revelation, the arc of journey towards a recognition of the real good in life, underpins the vitality and roller coaster poetry of this production, beautifully directed by Phillip McMahon and performed with raw and involving intensity. It's a blast.

Dublin Oldschool runs at the National Theatre until 31 January.