Flights (Omnibus Theatre, Clapham, until February 29th)
An anthem to friendship, the healing power of grief, hot-headed youth, lost lives and moving on from what snares us form the basis of the articulately written and outstandingly acted Flights, receiving its London premiere after a run in Dublin.
Sometimes you see a play that just gets you and embeds itself on the heart and mind: such is the case with John O’Donovan’s intricate and intense play that features three old friends in their 30s who meet every year to remember and celebrate the life of a schoolmate who died 17 years previously.
It’s a slow burner of a play with the lives of its three central characters (and the haunting memories of a fourth) reflected in the sputtering candles scattered around the dilapidated shack near Ennis in County Clare in which they gather.
The setting – a near-forgotten building with blue plastic sheets on the walls and littered with empty beer cans and random furniture (a striking creation by Naomi Faughnan) – stands at the crossroads between hope and despair, the old and the new, myth and reality, the past and the present, with an uncertain future only a grasp away. Zia Bergin-Holly’s lighting and Peter Power’s sound and music illuminate and permeate the words and action.
On this particular dark and stormy night the annual wake, fuelled by booze and drugs, is a smaller affair than usual. Most of the others who usually attend have made alternative plans or had an early night or even forgotten the tragedy that held them all together, but these three continue to meet for darts, drink, drugs and to share a common bond of wasted lives, gazing bleakly ahead with resigned desperation.
The immediate impression is that this is a stark portrayal of real life for so many. Amid the chummy male banter these are men damaged by unfulfilled potential, by a lack of resources and opportunities, suffering the consequences of political and economic shock.
They share a desire to escape, but this isn’t one of those Irish plays where the characters are rooted by a sense of duty to their hometown: the tragedy is that these are men who are simply unable to move on, even when the possibility arises, and they know it.
The title may refer to the flights which help the darts hit their target in the game being skilfully played throughout or it might relate to the escape the characters seek: but nothing can ease the emotionally baggage which pins them to where they are right now.
Conor Madden’s laddish Cusack is perhaps the easiest to relate to, a new father enthralled by his baby and enamoured by a wife who used to be with his dead friend, yet having little to live on and missing the freedom that juvenile life ensured. Madden’s deeply vulnerable performance captures the desire to stay connected to the past with a wistful longing for things that might, but will probably never, be.
Colin Campbell’s Barry is unsettled and hesitant, cautious about the possibilities offered by his girlfriend’s new job in London. It is a performance rich with anxiety and unknowing, fearing the most positive solutions to working in a dead-end job have long passed.
Wide-eyed, unemployed, homeless and drink and drug dependent, Rhys Dunlop’s Pa has an acerbic edge; he is the one constantly able to hit the bull’s-eye on the dartboard yet there is a sense that he long ago accepted a cheerless destiny.
Adding poignancy to the play, each character has a long monologue bringing their dead friend Liam vocally to life. The sharp and well-delivered soliloquies suggest what might have been, eventually revealing what actually happened on that night 17 years ago.
Thomas Martin directs this One Duck Theatre production with sensitivity, ensuring the humour and the pervading melancholy are finely balanced and managing to make the two-and-a-half running time feel like an entire night, a snapshot of reality and a lifetime of experience. Not once does it feel too long.
This mellow and magnificent new play is sometimes hilarious, often haunting and occasionally heartbreaking, presenting us with truth in the drama and stellar performances from a gutsy cast. It will stay with, challenge and disquiet you long after you leave the theatre.