Theatre: The Seafarer | Go Back For Murder

A group of men find hope and redemption in The Seafarer. Picture: Eamonn McGoldrick
A group of men find hope and redemption in The Seafarer. Picture: Eamonn McGoldrick
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Two fine productions – in their very different ways – explore the healing and destructive powers of love



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St Valentine’s Day; but alas, there are no romantic comedies on the Scottish theatre horizon. That’s not to say, though, that love doesn’t matter, in the two shows that dominate this week’s scene. In The Seafarer, at Perth, love hides deep beneath the surface, until its redemptive power suddenly surges into the light in the play’s closing moments; and in Agatha Christie’s Go Back For Murder, at the King’s in Edinburgh, romantic obsession drives the plot – as it drove much of Christie’s early life – into dark places, and violent conclusions.

First seen in London in 2006, Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer is a big two-hour play that revisits some themes familiar from his earlier work; and at Perth Theatre – in a co-production with the Lyric, Belfast – artistic director Rachel O’Riordan gives it a powerful Scottish premiere, well worth savouring. Like McPherson’s great masterpiece The Weir, The Seafarer combines a strong sense of the fractured, secular life of contemporary Ireland with a deep traditional feeling for the spiritual and supernatural; and like all his work, it is full of storytelling, anecdotes and tales.

The play is set on Christmas Eve, in the run-down Dublin canalside cottage of Richard Harkin, a noisy old broth of a man who has recently lost his eyesight. Harkin is superbly played by Ciaran McIntyre; but the seafarer of the title, it seems, is Richard’s much younger brother James, known as “Sharky”, a man of few words and many scars – played with a fine brooding presence by Louis Dempsey – who has returned from a job down in County Clare to look after his brother. Together with Richard’s boon drinking companion Ivan and his wideboy friend Nicky – who is now living with Sharky’s estranged wife and children – they settle down for a Christmas Eve game of cards; but Nicky has brought with him a peculiar, gaunt, Scots-accented stranger called Mr Lockhart, chillingly played by Benny Young, whose game of chance with Sharky has a deeper meaning than any of the others can guess.

It’s difficult to express the full bleakness of the world that McPherson conjures up here, or the extent to which he transcends that bleakness through the sheer power and humanity of his storytelling. There are no women in this world; they appear only offstage, as adults trying to keep homes together and organise Christmas, while their helpless menfolk drink themselves into a stupor, conduct imaginary battles with the winos out in the lane, and tell stories of their half-numbed feelings of fear, guilt, loss and self-disgust. Only Sharky is staying off the booze and trying to organise a few domestic comforts; and that proves to be a temporary abstinence.

Yet as the game of chance and strength between Sharky and Mr Lockhart reaches its climax, there’s a sense that from somewhere – from the love and care Ivan and Sharky show towards Richard, from the little residual flame of religious faith that still burns in both brothers, or from the new love that Sharky has perhaps found down in Clare – this wrecked and hopeless group of men still find the resources to fight off the ultimate darkness and destruction represented by Lockhart. There is no actual seafarer in this play; it seems to draw its title from the mighty Anglo-Saxon poem of human journeying and redemption that bears the same name. Yet when old Richard raises his voice at the end of the play to remind his brother that they are, after all, both still alive, McPherson’s writing begins to take on the quality of a great 21st-century hymn; not so secure in its faith as the voice of the original Seafarer, but still certain that life and creation must be celebrated, and the forces of death and despair sent straight back to hell, where they belong.

There’s little sign of this kind of redemptive love, though, in Agatha Christie’s 1960 drama Go Back For Murder, although the show ends with a jolly romantic kiss. Based on Christie’s 1942 novel Five Little Pigs, the play tells the story of young Carla Crale, brought up in Canada after her much-loved mother was tried and convicted for murdering her father, but now back in England, 20 years on, on a quest for the truth.

In a classic country-house whodunit, Carla and her helpful young lawyer assemble all the possible suspects at the scene of the crime, her parents’ former home, and proceed to explore how difficult it is to build the testimony of five different characters – the mistress who was being painted by Carla’s handsome artist father, the governess devoted to Carla’s betrayed mother, the stroppy teenage sister, the two posh brothers from next door – into an accurate reconstruction of the truth.

In the end, it’s all slightly clunky, predictable stuff, full of heavily stereotyped characters. But Joe Harmston’s lively and inventive Agatha Christie Company make a fine effort, as usual, to free Christie from the straitjacket of pre-war costume drama, and to reframe her as an interesting chronicler of social change in the mid-20th century; this version of the story is set in 1968, with Sophie Ward’s independent-minded Carla dressed in op-art mini-dresses, and The Beatles on the soundtrack. And if some of the company are measurably older than the characters they play, they still bring a terrific, time-shifting energy to the task of making these characters live again; the cast includes not only the fabulous, witty Sophie Ward as Carla and her mother Caroline, and Lysette Anthony as the vampish mistress, but the lovely Liza Goddard, delivering a touching cameo as the devoted governess who draws all the wrong conclusions from a brief glimpse of the crime scene, two long decades ago.

• The Seafarer runs until 23 February; Go Back For Murder until 16 February