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Conor McPherson's The Seafarer

Updated on December 14, 2009

Conor McPherson was a boy genius. Now he's a man genius. I've only seen two pieces of his work but it's enough to restore my faith in awards. (He's won a clatter of them.)

Fans of Roddy Doyle, who wrote The Commitments, The Van, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, will feel immediately at home in an audience of The Seafarer, as will everyone whose circle of friends or aquaintance has included the four local lads in the comedy, which in Dublin means absolutely everyone.

Conor McPherson, the writer/director here, is also the playwright of The Weir, which is a convincing recreation of a modern rural Irish community. So finding his equal ease in depicting an urban reality in The Seafarer was the first of many great satisfactions in The Abbey’s current production.

It is cringeingly funny, sweetly funny, disgustingly funny and you feel for the central anti-hero so cogently that it’s with great relief that the play resolves as it does. I say ‘central’ anti-hero as this play is peopled with nothing but anti-heroes.

Drunk, drunker and fogeddaboutit compete in the race to the bottom – that is, Dick, Ivan and Sharky who are Blind Drunk, Plain Stupid and a poor sod who’s trying to give life another shot so has given up the shots, cans and pints to get back on his feet.

Liam Carney plays Sharky, younger brother to Dick (Maelíosa Stafford) who has just come home to Dublin after a temporary job down the country. Don Wycherley – who is normally a ride – throws himself into this role with obvious glee: he sports a pot belly mounded under an acrylic jumper that’s seen better days, a baldy pate that’s curtained by wispy, frizzy, flyaway locks down to his shoulders.

He plays Ivan – the hapless friend and neighbour who’s been looking after Dick while Sharky was working down the country.

The play opens on the morning of Christmas Eve. The three lads are trying to get provisions, presents and invite people round to enjoy the festive season. Dick’s keen to get a card game going for later that night and ends up inviting the last two characters: Nicky (Phelim Drew) and Mr Lockhart (Nick Dunning).

To begin with Don Wycherley steals all the scenes – his lines, his body language, his whole character would have you crying laughing. But even in the first couple of scenes Sharky’s tender care of his blind brother’s wellbeing pulls at your heartstrings and though you’ve instantly liked him from the moment he comes on stage, you gradually begin rooting for him in earnest.

Had the play been cast with 20-somethings nothing in their plight would suggest that they’re sad gits with no future. That these shenanigans happen to middle-aged men is the bittersweet undertow to the play that gives it its depth. In this production that poignancy is beautifully underlined by the set, which sketches out a home that was once put together by their parents and has been left to decay by the two grown up sons.

Phelim Drew plays a lovely Jack-the-lad deftly, he’s a decent skin even if he is Sharky’s rival. Maelíosa Stafford does a very good turn as the pontificating drunk – tuppence ha’penny looking down on tuppence – and Nick Dunning is a far more chilling supernatural visitor to the neighbourhood than Brad Pitt was in Meet Jack Black.

The Seafarer has a spooky twist as the fulcrum in the drama and it’s Liam Carney’s fitness and agility that gives this unwelcome visitor a credible power. The frightening premise of his visit and the seemingly unfair randomness of the visitor’s focus this particular Christmas – just when the universe is about to give Sharky a break – load the encounter with preciously fragile hope and a real fear that Mr Nasty could win.

Dominic Dromgoole (artistic director of the Globe Theatre in London) says in his foreword: “So a play, which seems to create a comic universe of degradation and despair, is suddenly filled with rash amounts of hope”. Those rash amounts of hope are happily replenished throughout the play, many of which might only register with you later as you remember the gags and scenes in telling your friends about it.


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      Germaine Reilly 7 years ago

      Hey Ainehannah, am a big fan of Conor McPherson and saw this at the Abbey. Your article definitely does the play justice. I think he did the stage play for The Birds too, on at the Gate earlier this year, which was also wonderful.

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      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks for this info. I will look out for this one, for sure. Sounds great! Thanks for writing such an interesting review.

      Love and peace