“Never Closer” is a debut full-length play by writer Grace Chapple. It is directed by Belvoir associate Hannah Goodwin and produced by “essential workers”. This is a curious beast. Set – mainly – in a border town of Northern Ireland in the 1980s the play tells the story of a group of friends. We meet them as young, idealistic, and dreaming of the future. One of the team, Niaimh is off to England to study medicine. We can see where this is going – Niamh enters the world of Northern Ireland’s political enemies and in doing so will call into question everything these idealists believe. Indeed, that is what happens. Fast forward and we discover that Deidre still lives at home; Jimmy, Mary and Conor converge for a Christmas Eve drink and catch up and welcome Niamh and her English boyfriend, Harry. Political and personal tensions explode in a potent cocktail of half lived lives, trauma, and a lot of whiskey.
The play begins with what we think is going to be an Irish ghost story – and yes, the main action happens in the past, so I guess we are watching ghosts in this almost nihilistic tragedy. To end the play, we encounter an Australian back packer searching for his ancestral roots. Grace Chapple has a talent for dialogue and the story telling is well plotted. It’s written with what sounds like an authentic Irish voice (and I do love and Irish play!). I discovered that Grace has an Irish mum. The work is at its strongest when it leans into an almost Chekhovian yearning. The characters yearn for Dublin, England, New York… they yearn for an impossible unrequited love …. They yearn for a better, brighter world which seems forever out of reach. I wanted more of that. It felt original to be looking back at a world that we couldn’t ever understand (who of us lived through Thatcher’s England?) with some knowledge of how things have and have not resolved politically. But it feels overly long and often derivative – once the major forces are established the work hasn’t many places it can go (or doesn’t in this play). The outsider will get drunk and throw up, old flames will reignite or continue to smoulder and so on. The premiere of a new play is to be celebrated and Chapple’s website reveals a good sprinkling of accolades for the play. There’s no doubt we will hear more from Grace Chapple. Bring it on!
The play is set in a single sitting room. It feels like it could be a kitchen but there’s no sink, which becomes a challenge when characters are required to pour liquid away. The set design (Grace Deacon) is functional, literal save for an over-sized, patterned curtain covering the back wall of the theatre. Costumes (Keerthi Subramanyan) strain to be either authentically 80s or from a past world. When clues from the text on period were lost it sometimes wasn’t clear exactly when we were. The Margaret Thatcher reference helped.
Alyx Dennison (Sound) and Phoebe Pilcher (Lighting) add solid support. I note the stellar work from dialect coach Laura Farrell who has all the cast sounding top notch.
Director, Hannah Goodwin, works with a universally skilled cast to deliver this Irish Australian work. Mabel Li excels as the student doctor Niamh whose accent subtly alters after her stint in England. Boyfriend Harry is played with great panache by Phillip Lynch. He hits just the right note in a role that in lesser hands could go horribly wrong. Emma Diaz delivers detailed work as the story’s centre – Deidre – who hasn’t changed since high school but holds a candle for Jimmy (a vibrant Raj Lambade) while courting Conor (a brooding Adam Sollis). Ariadne Sgourus as friend Mary brings her usual flair and solid support.
As an exploration of the stories that shape us and the power of political crisis as a backdrop to youth, “Never Closer” is worth a look. Shout out for producers “essential workers” – lead by the indefatigable Zoe Hollyoak - for whom this is their second show in the 25A season this year (the first being “Horses”). It’s a tough time for indie theatre producers everywhere who support audacious emerging artists. Hollyoak is making quiet but significant inroads into our local theatre scene. One to watch!
This production was reviewed at the first preview.