Review: Dublin Carol (Sherman Theatre)

Conor McPherson’s play is revived in Cardiff

With Christmas (and Dry January) still fresh in the consciousness, Sherman Theatre ushers in February 2018 with a typically pertinent play. Conor McPherson draws on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for his intimate three-hander, a treatise on alcoholism and its repercussions.

John is the alcoholic in question – a middle-aged undertaker with the guilt of the past etched on his face. His penchant for alcohol is matched by his ability to talk – what may once have been the rhetoric of a charismatic young man is now the rambling of an old drunk, afraid of silence. When his daughter shows up with news of his wife’s impending death, he’s forced to confront the mistakes he’s made and evaluate his life.

As has become a hallmark of McPherson’s plays, a tenderness in his script is punctuated with bursts of brutality, and that is most visible in Simon Wolfe’s commanding performance as John. His Dublin patter and self-deprecating humour make him instantly likeable but the character always feels on edge, as though one nudge away from falling apart. Thanks to Matthew Xia‘s strong direction, Wolfe is magnetic on stage, the centre of attention even when he’s not speaking.

Unfortunately, that same level of detail doesn’t seem to have been applied to the other characters in the play. While important to the narrative, Mark (Julian Moore-Cook) and Mary (Siwan Morris) feel underdeveloped and, subsequently, their influence on John’s actions isn’t quite convincing. Moore-Cook brings levity and warmth to the piece as protégé Mark. Morris, meanwhile, brings that burst of brutality in her lone scene, though a wavering Irish accent is off-putting at points.

The play’s set design is exceptional. The Sherman’s studio space is transformed into what is almost a fully functioning office, complete with carpet, desks and Christmas decorations. Music lingers hauntingly in the background, never quite loud enough to disrupt the action. Light changes are similarly subtle, reflecting the mood rather than forcing it. Again, it’s down to clever directorial decisions from Xia, and solid technique from the designers.

Like its lead character, Dublin Carol is a solid piece of theatre with visible flaws. Difficult subject matter is handled with grace, however, and there comes in the shape of Wolfe a performance that is frighteningly realistic. The play doesn’t end on a high note or a low note – it simply fades to black with questions still in the air. A fittingly unfulfilling way to end the story of a man that, most likely, will remain unfulfilled.

Dublin Carol runs at Sherman Theatre until 17 February.