The Gigli Concert: Tom Murphy’s music is expertly played | Theatre review

This considered production proves that almost anything is possible

The Gigli Concert
Gate Theatre, Dublin
Rating: 5/5

Nobody in their right mind would come to JPW King’s shabby office, the Dublin branch of “Dynamatology”, in search of a miracle. Playing a dishevelled English man adrift in Ireland, not even Declan Conlon seems like a believer, beginning Tom Murphy’s extraordinary 1983 play with a gentle prayer: “Christ, how am I going to make it through today?”

Those words are repeated, shortly after, by a surprise visitor, a prosperous but depressed property developer, played by Denis Conway, who wants to sing like the Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli. This would require an absolutely impossible transformation. Surprisingly, he might have come to the right place.

Director David Grindley recognises the daring trajectory of Murphy’s play, a desperate comedy that surges towards alchemy, a leap from the ridiculous to the sublime. The masterful achievement of this revival is to keep that realism and fantasy in tight suspension. Jonathan Fensom’s set, for instance, is almost over-detailed, from floor to ceiling, yet it subtly avows the frame of the theatre, a place for dark magic.


It also allows for one of the most extraordinary performances of the year, in the shape of Sinéad McKenna’s lights, which weightlessly trace the passage of daylight or the blink of a hall lamp, while ushering in actions of beautiful symbolism. It creates a vivid and arresting space, charged with potential (or, as JPW blathers, for “possibilising that quiet power of the possible”).

Here, Conlon and Conway display expert command of Murphy’s music. This intoxicating play makes intoxication its subject. In merry and reckless pursuit of transcendence, they bring alcohol, music, drugs and desires into their sessions. But to watch Conway’s exceptional performance is to appreciate a more intoxicating potential in theatre. Although he played the same role in Druid’s 2009 production, Conway seems to make wholly new discoveries.

First, it’s the Irish man’s stillness, tight and threatening. Then it’s the operatic thrust of his speeches, face-front, feet planted widely apart, declaimed as arias. In a brave and revelatory motif, he lays a long, wavering stress on the simple word “and”, like a voice cracking with emotion or on the cusp of breaking into song. It’s a note-perfect performance.

Conlon is not convincingly English, but he makes a believable eccentric, which matters more. Frazzled and fast-talking, his JPW energetically tries to reconcile the irreconcilable: original sin and the subconscious, low thoughts and soaring music, science and magic. If Dawn Bradfield’s Mona seems overshadowed, it is because JPW’s adulterous squeeze is – in every sense of the word – a supporting character, frank but unfulfilled in her desires.

Grindley serves Murphy's most demanding crescendo, somewhere between a magical act and a leap of faith, with a clever metatheatrical fillip. But an earlier moment (which, on opening night, drew spontaneous applause) ends one of Conway's bittersweet reminiscences in perfect sync with Tosselli's Serenade. Murphy's modest stage directions ask for that, "if possible". The bruised belief of his play, and the great achievement of this considered production, is that almost anything is.

Until June 27th

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about theatre, television and other aspects of culture