Review: The Last Summer

NOSTALGIA IS like a grammar lesson, observed the poet Owens Lee Pomeroy: you find the present tense and the past perfect. A similar kind of parsing takes place in Declan Hughes’ new play for the Gate Theatre, divided between one summer day, thrumming with possibility, in 1977, and another, precisely 30 years later, when the good times are about to come crashing down.

Here, the past may indeed be another country, a place of streaming sunlight and halcyon haze, where four south Dublin school-leavers and band mates busily make plans for the evening (staging a rock concert, participating in a fateful brawl, getting laid) and, with less urgency, their lives. Meanwhile, 2007 hosts a more fraught reunion of unresolved tensions and one absent friend.

Hughes entwines the time periods along a musical motif: two versions of his protagonist Paul Taylor arrive onstage, a toothsome 17-year-old idealist, as played by Sam McGovern, and a caddish 47-year-old American university professor, played by Declan Conlon. The first strums a guitar while the second plugs into an iPod, and already we have a sad decline – from creator to consumer. Even the set, by Robert Innes Hopkins, is a turntable, revolved by the cast, which allows past and present selves to silently observe each other.

That bolsters the sense that Hughes is fascinated by the what-ifs and also-rans of history (the band, never named, might as well be called Them2) together with irreversible mistakes and fixed fates.
Paul’s love interest Caroline is so superficially drawn, though, that neither a breathy Clare O’Malley nor ultra-foxy Cathy Belton can find much substance or variation in it, and, like various plot points, the cause of their separation is only mistily described.

A neat exchange about the public sector and private industry between the intelligent but flummoxed young Paul and the dull-witted but canny Tom (Paul Connaughton) makes more pointed allusion to a country in transition and the rise of cute opportunists: in both years, Fianna Fail have swept the general election. It resolves in Peter Hanly’s sanguine property dealer describing a suddenly stalling market while the tycoon Tom (an excellent Gary Lydon) responds to the dawning financial crisis with famous last words: “The fundamentals are sound.”

You couldn’t quite say the same for director Toby Frow’s production, which seems unsure how to respond to Hughes’ strange mode of ûurban pastoralism. Almost every scene takes place outdoors – in golden lane ways, beaches and gardens – which conspires with some distractingly fake wigs to makes everything seem as farcical as some coming-of-age sex comedy cliches. That unbalances more serious points about aggressive individualism (Ayn Rand and The Great Gatsby are invoked frequently) and the emotional standoff between hollow compromise and the pursuit of reckless passion.

It may be uneven, but it is, ultimately, a lament for the end of adolescence, the end of affluence, and perhaps finally a quiet plea to take responsibility for the present, not by seeing things through the fug of nostalgia but with the sharper benefit of hindsight.
Until November 3rd

- Peter Crawley

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