Writer: Hugh Leonard
Director: Eleanor Rhode
Reviewer: Ian Foster
Having spent most of his life fulminating behind his civil service desk in small-town Ireland, Desmond Drumm is forced to re-evaluate everything when he is given just six months to live in this fiercely moving and funny play from Hugh Leonard. Aware he has frequently sacrificed people for his principles, he attempts to make his peace with his oldest friends. But old scores from the past must be dealt with first and so as he struggles to get his emotional affairs in order in the current day, reminiscences of his younger days play out at the same time, shedding light on how Drumm has become the man he is. A commission from the Finborough Theatre, Eleanor Rhode’s production is the first UK showing for this Tony-nominated play in 30 years.
Rhode’s previous work here has clearly encouraged her to explore the boundaries of how this intimate theatre can be used, creating an extraordinary sense of openness and space. James Turner’s design is stark simplicity, just crashing surf daubed on the wall behind and a single chair – a neat nod to the play – with props being kept to a bare minimum, to enhance the feeling of fluid timelessness. And scenes are played out from unexpected places – the extreme sides, the steps amid the audience –popping up like fragments of memory that cannot be ignored either by us or by the older versions of the characters.
And it is these, whose lived-in experiences and long-held emotions are undeniably drawn in beautifully rounded performances, who really make A Life as captivating as it is. Hugh Ross relishes the scathingly sharp humour of Drumm – his Canadian grandchildren are described as looking like “pygmy lumberjacks” – and the fiercely burning intelligence which has corroded into a self-assured arrogance, but layers in a crucial tinge of regret of how life has unfolded and how unable to change he feels. An utterly enthralling portrayal of an engagingly complex character.
Ross is superbly complemented too by the two women in his life: Judith Coke’s sweetly daffy wife Dolly and Kate Binchy’s Mary, the one that got away. Dolly is the ever-dutiful and deferent partner but Coke subtly suggests a keen astuteness about her, which may not be recognised by her husband, but is one which speaks volumes about the lengths to which some women go to keep their marriages stable, yet maintain their own lives. And in a similar way, Binchy beautifully plays the deep understanding of men that Mary possesses, recognising the importance of her rôle in Drumm’s life and possible redemption and also in that of the man she chose over him, Neil McCaul’s feckless Kearns. Wrapped in an unassuming persona, it is a remarkable nuanced strength, completely free from any cloying sentiment, that emerges from Binchy which counterpoints Drumm’s abrasiveness most effectively.
The younger incarnations of this foursome weave in and out of the drama to play out scenes from their shared past, Mary Mullen and David Walshe particularly good at tracing Mary and Drumm’s early relationship without overdoing behavioural parallels, and the overlapping of time-streams is realised with a sensitive, elegiac grace which builds to a climax of shattering emotional intensity.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the Finborough have done it again with a stunning revival of this minor-key comic masterpiece.