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Shining City at Theatre Royal Stratford East | Review

Rory Keenan (Ian) in Shining City at Theatre Royal Stratford East, Directed by Nadia Fall and designed by Peter McKintosh. Photographer Marc Brenner
Rory Keenan (Ian) in Shining City at Theatre Royal Stratford East, Photographer Marc Brenner.

Bookshelves in Ian’s (Rory Keenan) temporary accommodation are gradually filled as the play goes on – and, when his time there draws to a close, the contents are promptly boxed up. There may or may not be a metaphor in this about the accumulation of thoughts, feelings and life experiences that for some reason or another can’t be entirely let go of, even when a fresh start beckons. While John (Brendan Coyle) tells Ian, his therapist, about various vivid recollections of past events – sometimes in borderline excruciating detail – it becomes clear, when Ian’s partner Neasa (Michelle Fox) makes a visit, that therapists may have a lot of professional training but are not exactly without problems.

The dialogue is not kind to women, though there appear to be plenty of them. At one point, John places one of his liaisons amongst his “top five” in terms of physical attractiveness, which was hardly endearing, and he also appears to have anger management issues – surely they can’t all be individually responsible for him getting frustrated in one way or another, especially as he’s the common denominator.

This production is steadily paced, and perhaps a tad too slow, a matter only exacerbated by long scene changes, in which the audience found itself glaring at the same map of a part of Dublin (on which the curtain was displayed). Completing the set of on-stage characters is Laurence (Curtis-Lee Ashqar), whom I took to be a male prostitute. People are, of course, at liberty to do as they wish (within reason) in the privacy of their homes – and in any event, the curtain falls at the end of the scene before anybody gets too hot under the collar.

Coyle’s John struggles to articulate himself, leaving sentences unfinished, or otherwise filling in a pause or an interruption with ‘you know’, as though skirting around whatever it is he really wants to talk about. When he finds his stride, the conversation flows freely, even if Ian’s role as therapist means he does the vast majority of the listening. Ghosts in theatre plays, meanwhile, is nothing new (I’m thinking Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but there could well be earlier examples): here, particularly given the relaxed pace of the show overall, the final ‘ghost’ scene seems very rushed and, frankly, a tad gimmicky.

I’m not sure there are mental health issues going on with John or if this is actually more of a mid-life crisis. I did, at least, feel invested enough to wonder how the characters got on after the play’s events had occurred. As for Ian, the man can be taken out of the Church but it’s not altogether clear whether the Church can be taken out of the man, and there are hints of lingering Catholic guilt that occasionally permeate through. The different narrative points do add up eventually, but the show’s conclusion feels as though the lights come up for the interval rather than the end.

For reasons explained in the narrative, John’s story is all exposition, whilst the luxury of dramatization is afforded to the other characters: there’s a reliance, when it comes to John, on the art of storytelling. That he deliberately stumbles over words and yet still manages to be somewhat engaging is a testament to the script as well as the actor bringing it to life.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

Dublin, Ireland. John, recently bereaved, believes himself to be haunted by the ghost of his dead wife.
Plagued by secrets, he slowly reveals his story and his truth to Ian – a psychotherapist and former priest who has lost his faith. As the two men struggle to make sense of their place in the world, they are bound in ways they could never have imagined and forced to question the very nature of reality itself.

Laurence Curtis-Lee Ashqar
John Brendan Coyle
Neasa Michelle Fox
Ian Rory Keenan

Creative Team
Written by Conor McPherson
Director Nadia Fall
Designer Peter McKintosh
Lighting Designer Howard Harrison
Sound Design Alexandra Faye Braithwaite
Movement Director Jack Murphy
Supported by Telford Homes.

Shining City
Written by Conor McPherson
Directed by Nadia Fall
Fri 17 Sept – Sat 23 Oct 2021


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