Citysong review: An Irish family’s entrancing journey across generations

Dylan Coburn Gray’s play for voices builds up a huge picture through small details

Citysong: Whatever your stage in life, wherever your home, you are reflected in Dylan Coburn Gray’s careful map. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

Citysong: Whatever your stage in life, wherever your home, you are reflected in Dylan Coburn Gray’s careful map. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

 

CITYSONG

Abbey Theatre, Dublin
★★★★☆
It takes a moment to recognise the shape within Sarah Bacon’s set: a shattered, jagged mirror that provides the backdrop to Dylan Coburn Gray’s entrancing spoken-word play Citysong. It is a map of Dublin, as though created by accident yet so subtly detailed that even the cracks sketch out its streets. Though it is fractured, you can just about see yourself in it.

So it is with this fine piece of writing and understandably sparing coproduction by the Abbey and London’s Soho Theatre. Following one day in the life of a Dublin family, and appealing foremost to the imagination, Citysong uses its spry poetry to cast forward and delve backward in time. “Look,” Dan Monaghan’s narrator instructs, surveying a bracingly contemporary, history-soaked city, “the spire’s a spindle or axis, and while it’s not vinyl, the city is a record of all that has happened to us, is happening, or will.”

Like a wide shot snapping to a close-up, or a roving journey dipping to the intimacy of thought, the play deftly telescopes the past and present into a single moment

Like Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, whose influence Citysong wears proudly, this is a play for voices, a nimble and vivid exercise in show and tell that builds up a huge picture through small details. Take the taxi driver, pinging across Dublin by night, who briefly regards his dashboard ID photograph: “It’s old enough that he’s young enough that he can’t see himself in it.” Like a wide shot snapping to a close-up, or a roving journey dipping to the intimacy of thought, the play deftly telescopes the past and present into a single moment.

That allows the production’s director, Caitríona McLaughlin, and her fleet, six-person ensemble to briskly summon up characters in significant life stages – surging adolescence, frazzled parenthood, vulnerable old age – together with whole social histories.

We meet Daryl McCormack and Jade Jordan’s characters in the maternity ward, thirtysomething schoolteachers whose relationship reflects the changing faces and softening attitudes of the nation.

Her mother (Clare McKenna), whose faculties are in slight decline, recalls the slow erosion of intimacy in a marriage after unexamined tragedy, loneliness in widowhood and, now, a poignant battle with confusion. Her grandson, an adorably awkward teenager struggling to appear confident, brings details both harrowing and hilarious. (Furtively seeking information about sex online, we hear, chillingly, “And the internet told him…”)

On the surface nothing extraordinary happens. But, through the intimacy of poetry, individual lives are both warmly witnessed and changed forever

Coburn Gray writes with compassion and respect for all, though. That other characters recall similar experiences, in alarming conversations with friends and mortifying conversations with parents, makes an elegant point about generational connection and repetition. So does the man who is shocked to see his father in his own reflection, and the artfully mirrored motion of cast members under the movement director Sue Mythen.

With such sumptuous and sinuous writing – guided by pleasing internal rhymes – you appreciate the easy diction and gentle elaborations of Monaghan, Amy Conroy and, in a series of witty support roles, the terrific Bláithín Mac Gabhann. Occasionally, though, through the swift details, you itch for a rewind button or to consult the script.

Then again, a work like this bears repeat viewings. On the surface nothing extraordinary happens: a child is born and the news travels, memories are stirred and the future is imagined. But, through the intimacy of poetry, individual lives are both warmly witnessed and changed forever. Whatever your stage in life, wherever your home, you are reflected in its careful map. Everyone belongs there, and everyone is just passing through.

Runs until Saturday, June 8th

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