Once Before I Go: Join the dance, live fully, live without judgment, live well

Dublin Theatre Festival: Sean Campion and Aisling O’Sullivan star in Philip McMahon’s play

ONCE BEFORE I GO

Gate Theatre, Dublin
★★★★☆
"Gays are so boring now. It's not like the old days," Daithí (Sean Campion) quips when his old friend Lynn (Aisling O'Sullivan) comes calling to his London flat after 25 years of silence.

Once a radical feminist and gay-rights activist, Lynn is married with grown-up kids now. She works in law, wears a pencil skirt, drives a hybrid. Daithí has also settled down, in his own fashion. Recovered from addiction, he has become a surrogate father to a troubled young trans man, Jase, played by Sam Crerar with an explosive vulnerability.

As writer Phillip McMahon reveals the personal history that has inspired this unwelcome reunion, the play slips back in time to Dublin in the late 1980s, when homophobia is openly expressed on the streets and the Aids crisis is decimating their community.

The stage is outlined by a neon frame, with giant glowing numerals providing set dressing, furniture and a historical context, highlighting the way cultural conditions inform the psychological paralysis of Daithí and Lynn

If the first and second parts of McMahon’s play fit neatly into the realist template of a drawing-room comedy, Francis O’Connor’s bold set immediately queers it. The stage is outlined by a neon frame, with giant glowing numerals providing set dressing, furniture and a historical context for the work. This latter function is particularly important in highlighting the way in which cultural conditions inform the psychological paralysis of Daithí and Lynn.

Director Selina Cartmell matches the boldness of O’Connor’s set with a heightened energy from the start, adding touches of countercultural magic that speak to the aesthetic practices and preferences of the community that McMahon’s play represents. If the second part of Once Before I Go seems weighed down a little by historical exposition, Cartmell lets the younger actors (Martha Breen’s young Lynn, Desmond Eastwood’s young Daithí, and Matthew Malone’s Bernard) enjoy themselves, even as their expressions – textual, vocal and gestural – subtly foreshadow the tragedy to come.

The use of music throughout this dynamic production is powerful. From the opening dance sequence in which Jase enjoys a private moment of physical catharsis, through Alma Kelliher's original musical underscoring, to the final full-blown drag fantasy, where Bernard chooses his own transformational encore, Once Before I Go is a play that implores us to join the dance, to live fully, to live without judgment, to live well.

Runs at the Gate Theatre until Saturday, October 30th, as part of Dublin Theatre Festival

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