Bewley's Café Theatre, Dublin ***
Larry, a young Irish male, is stuck in a rut. That this furrow of loneliness, idleness and drunkenness has been long excavated on the stage doesn't make it any easier. But it does make David Fennelly's debut play more imaginative in shaping its own groove, aware that in a time of recession, there are plenty more plays like Fishes in the sea.
What tips the scale in Fennelly’s favour is his superb facility with dialogue, although it’s not clear if he knows it. When dole officer Eldridge (the excellent John Doran) comes to visit Larry (Fennelly) in a grim bedsit, their amusingly staccato conversation nimbly spills out the details. “I wasn’t expecting you so early,” says Larry, in his dressing gown. “Did we not say 12?” Eldridge replies. The interview hasn’t begun and we already know the whole story.
Fishes could go on like this swimmingly, Doran's awkward checklist letting his own personal information slip, and Fennelly's stumbling responses becoming a flow of shame and vulnerability.
“I’m a boy again,” says Larry with a wide-eyed helplessness that breaks your heart. But then everything changes.
Doran is an actor of wit, versatility and precision and director John Morton seems keen to put him through his paces. Suddenly Doran becomes Larry's inner demon, pouncing on him in an infernal glow. Larry begins to parcel his story in panic-stricken monologues. The production becomes an episodic display of comic multiple role-play, where Morton slyly enlists kitchen utensils as props.
Here’s Fennelly taking up boxing with oven-mitt gloves. There’s Doran as a Slovakian lothario with a sink-plug medallion.
This is all spry, entertaining and well performed, but so scattershot that the play never decides what it wants to be.
If your protagonist is pulling out of an alcoholic nosedive, there’s no reason the play shouldn’t also get the shakes, careening through hallucinations or stages of recovery, but Larry actually gets clean pretty quickly.
When women appear only as caricatures – a moithered mother with a mop head for hair, an uncomplicated one-night stand with predictable consequences – both the crisis and comedy reinforce a fear of commitment, as much to characters as to any one mode of performance.
Fennelly’s charming denouement recognises the character’s problem, even as Eldridge deflates Larry’s epiphany: “That’s pretty creepy. I would keep that story to myself.”
It’s one of several smart manoeuvres that make this a promising debut. It’s telling that Eldridge slips away uncertainly, as if even the most simple relationship was confusing – or, as the title suggests, that there’s always a catch.
Until April 5