Strangers In The Night
Those familiar with Stephen Jones’s superb From Eden might find themselves experiencing déjà vu when it comes to his latest comedic drama "Northern Lights.” With both plays built around a damaged guy meeting a damaged girl one fateful night under unusual circumstances, each bringing meaningful perspective into the others lives, the building blocks are practically identical. As are the actors and director in both productions. Yet they’re identical in the same way Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are identical. Twain’s tales might tell of rascally young waifs living wild by the Mississippi, but both are defined by their unique characteristics rather than their shared similarities. As is the case here. Indeed, if “Northern Lights” take us places Jones has taken us before, its delightfully fast paced humour and two terrific performances go a long way to forgiving Jones everything. For like Twain’s twin classics “Northern Lights” bubbles with irresistible comic charm, a sharply observed humanity, and a beating heart that bleeds. Under the impressive direction of Karl Shiels “Northern Lights” tries hard to make you fall in love with it. And…you really desperately want to. But if wildly irresistible on so many fronts, it doesn’t do enough to make you want to sleep with it. Yes, you will always remember it fondly, but despite its many wonderful qualities it finds itself being firmly relegated to the friend zone.
Built on a flimsy premise, one just about landing on the safe side of credible, “Northern Lights” sees bookworm and karaoke king, Lloyd, offering shelter to the troubled Áine one wet and windy night. Standing on a bridge overlooking the Liffey, Áine has her secrets. As does Lloyd. Escorting her safely inside the sanctuary of his ivory tower, the bookish and socially inept Lloyd, who loves karaoke yet hates pubs, regales the bespectacled Crumlin hairdresser with a penchant for telling children’s stories with some exuberant tales of his own. Tales of girlfriend Denise travelling through South America, his love for Conor MacGregor, or the people he sees looking out from his window. All interspersed with sudden excited outbursts which put the heart crossways in Áine. If the line between good guy and creep sometimes seems to blur, it’s not enough for Áine to want to leave. Like Lloyd, Áine needs the distraction. Talking so they won’t have to talk, they eat from a greasy spoon diner, drink while they sing karaoke, and play at being merry in an effort to forget. But personal revelations are going to surface sometime. And once they do what’s going to happen then?
While Jones’s unbalanced script leans more on character than narrative, said characters seem frequently curtailed by a kind of political correctness. Even if political correctness is something Jones has fun playing with at times. It’s as if the patriarchal cliche of the damsel in distress in desperate need of saving having been kicked to touch, the postmodern cliche of the damaged, vulnerable male in desperate need of saving doesn’t quite fit either. Unable to find a new normal, real connectedness, where and when it really matters, proves thin on the ground. Seána Kerslake’s Áine might stun you to silence in one of many exquisite moments simply by listening, and Jones’s Lloyd might sear your soul with his own profoundly moving revelation, but their characters experience their significant moments alone even if the other is in the room with them. Deeply moved, both appear to prefer their own personal space at the others crucial moments, as if afraid of the price of connection, or of getting it wrong, offering instead inadequate verbals, like inspirational quotes, by way of support. In the end, lacking sufficient connection, attraction or antagonism, Lloyd and Áine’s relationship, whatever its parameters, proves dramatically less satisfying, even if it delivers lots of laughs. Something director Karl Shiels, along with Jones might have explored in greater detail. For characters only connect on the surface and not in the deep, despite Jones striving for the opposite to be the case.
Where human connectedness really sparkles is in Jones’s rich and irresistibly awkward humour, an abundance of which makes “Northern Lights” worth the price of admission ten times over. Thanks to two hilarious performances by Jones and Kerslake. Fighting a heavily uneven weighting when it comes to character development in favour of Lloyd, Kerslake’s less developed Áine has some uneasy moments. Indeed, in the hands of a lesser actress Áine could have proven truly problematic, with the script making claims it fails to adequately support. Such as her being a bitch who ruins lives, or that she loves, or misses her boyfriend. But Kerslake is the calibre of actress who can take the crumbs of a character and fashion something memorable from it, and Kerslake’s lights up the stage with a captivating performance built from a perfect array of tones and gestures. Meanwhile, Jones's catcher in the rye Lloyd is superbly rendered throughout. Indeed, Jones's far more developed, and emotionally richer Lloyd, proves much more successful at straddling the comic-tragic divide. Even Lloyd’s unintended creepiness becomes beautifully crafted under Jones’s perfectly pitched performance, with Jones’s comic delivery being in a league of its own. Together, Jones and Kerslake make this odd couple sing and, at times, they’re simply mesmerising. Lisa Krugel’s cramped set wonderfully exploits the limited space while subtly capturing Lloyd's world, his crumbling castle with its ruined walls made from books offering frugal protection to the wounded karaoke king. Throughout, Karl Shiels keeps everything moving nicely, excelling in crafting moments of comic brilliance, wherein “Northern Lights” truly shines.
Like Lloyd and Áine, “Northern Lights” makes for a great night out, and it might even get emotional at times, but it's far too lightweight to rely on when things really get tough. Even so, like Neil Simon’s classics The Odd Couple, or The Goodbye Girl, which Jones’s writing shares many strengths with, “Northern Lights” is often a heartfelt joy. Indeed, if Jones could find other themes and tales to embrace, and made the journey dramatically more satisfying, he could, on his best day, give Simon a run for his money. For “Northern Lights” is greater than the sum of its uneven parts. If some parts prove clunky, others are divine, and the scale swings and settles on “Northern Lights” being a bittersweet delight.
“Northern Lights” by Stephen Jones, presented by Awake and Sing in association with Theatre Upstairs, runs at Theatre Upstairs until December 15.
For more information, visit Theatre Upstairs