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A Life

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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There's something forlorn about the Finborough at the moment, with the wine bar closed, customer access through the fire exit, and interval drinks available only in the little sweet shop round the corner.

      But the rich vein of work on the stage continues with the late Hugh Leonard's lovely, spiky, very funny play, A Life (1979), which develops the story of a minor character in another (and better known) of his pieces, Da.

  The role of a desiccated civil servant, Desmond Drumm, who can’t open his mouth without putting his foot in it, or banging his own namesake, was beautifully done in Dublin and London by a slightly too frail, legendary Cyril Cusack; so Hugh Ross, a decidedly English actor, has his work cut out to emulate him as the waves of the Dalkey coast crash into his subconscious and his younger self comes alive in his own unfulfilled love story with Mary Kearns.

    Wisely, Ross does something completely different: he plays Drumm’s arrogance as a kind of weakness in one described as “an Irish summer of a man,” unfairly ground down by a job he hates: “Cogito, ergo sum; I am a cog, therefore I am,” he says. And he just tinges his voice so he sounds like a subtle Irish malt, not a peaty coarse-grained blend.

  Young Mary, gorgeously played by Mary Mallen, was too light-minded for him, of course, and we see his punctilious, younger self (David Walshe, hilarious) trying to convert her to poetry while he maintains a grudge-filled aloofness from the adult Mary (Kate Binchy) and her despised husband, Lar (Neil McCaul).

The ebb and flow of these spiteful friendships is shaken up when, as the play starts, Drumm is told he has six months to live. He wants closure, or resolution at least; ironically, as a keeper of records at the town council, he has access to everyone’s file but his own. On the brink of retirement, he’s demanding an emotional audit.

Eleanor Rhode’s production for Snapdragon puts the actors on bare boards, the audience of 50 pulled round like a glove, a splash of water on the back wall, pebbles and stones around the room’s edge. Everything is done quietly, allowing the rawness of Drumm’s character to expose itself in the revelations of his father’s suicide, his own political speechifying, his honesty, vanity and malice.

The two sets of couples are enmeshed in Drumm’s recollection, but the ghosts bite back, too, and we see how Judith Coke’s expertly edgy, loudly laughing Dolly has evolved from Jenny Fennessy’s younger, clear-eyed version, while Lar’s origins in Robert Lonsdale’s straight-talking, uncomplicated boyo account for both Mary’s attraction to him and Lar’s own flop into grinning nonentity.


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