The Foxhound Inn, Dublin
In Endgame, Samuel Beckett's dry imagining of the painful last stages of all existence, one character asks another what there is to keep him here. "The dialogue," comes the mordant reply.
Until now, dialogue is all that Roddy Doyle’s online experiment in short-form writing had to offer. A series of gently comic exchanges between two Dublin men of advancing middle age, it didn’t seem to matter that the words were disembodied, floating beside a picture of two Guinnesses, well underway: their observations, desires, rages and griefs were so unfussily vivid you could picture every detail, round after round.
Now, Doyle has given Two Pints another form and shape, writing a two-hander play that pairs Liam Carney and Lorcan Cranitch as the kind of intimate friends who can meet in a pub without greeting, who can say anything but keep emotional expression guarded, who joke frequently – often hilariously – but very rarely laugh. Staged by the Abbey and touring to 23 pubs, it remains a conversation piece, a play about what lies beneath banter.
Given that, online, a single Two Pints entry will occupy a reader for about two minutes, a two-hour-plus performance might sound like a tall order. The subtle achievement of Doyle's transposition, though, and the deceptively simple quality of director Caitríona McLaughlin's production, is to keep that conversation flowing, through its curls of gags and tangents, while building up a detailed social picture and relating a personal story.
Carney, playing a pub philosopher and wind-up merchant, finds Cranitch, a drinker more credulous and sensitive, and as they prop up the bar, their talk meanders from an unhappy account of a hospital car-park attendant, to how the addition of Nigella Lawson improves every situation. This is less scattershot than it seems, and soon we have a context: Carney’s character has visited his father in hospital, and does not expect to see him leave. For men of a particular generation, the bar is a sanctuary, but they can see themselves moving towards last orders.
They’re funny in person, skilfully underplaying the lines, addressing the floor as frequently as each other; Cranitch, though, has a brilliant capacity to glance around the bar, owl-like, with grave suspicion. But amid its grief-tinged humour there are necessary jolts of anger, particularly when Carney reflects that the “baby doctors” he sees, belonging to another class, will always look healthy, “and we’ll always be the patients”.
Online, Two Pints so frequently accompanied the death of a celebrity it could became wearing, but here mortality underpins everything, from earnest discussions of prostate cancer (- What's the test? – A finger in the hole. – A doctor's finger? – Yeh, it has to be a doctor's finger) to frequent considerations of a world beyond our own. Between light sketches of a world they have seen change – with slightly awed regard for sexual equality, female politicians, and to a much lesser extent, vegetarianism – it's that thought to which they keep returning, and where echoes of Beckett are refreshingly unforced. Between heaven and hell, Carney says, "We're better off staying where we are."
Besides, as Cranitch exquisitely fumbles through his idea of an uncomplicated platonic paradise, sharing his life with another man, the bar itself seems like a kind of heaven. They recognise it themselves, sifting for meaning in life’s ongoing back and forth.
– Most of what we say is drivel.
– And it’s still brilliant.
Tours until August 5th. See list of pub venues here