• Chris O'Rourke

The Visiting Hour


Stephen Rea and Judith Roddy in The Visiting Hour by Frank McGuinness. Image Ros Kavanagh


*****


If you're going to turn up late, make a seriously strong impression. Over a year since live theatre moved online and The Gate Theatre has been noticeable by its absence. Now, sporting a Frank McGuinness world premiere, featuring Stephen Rea and Judith Roddy, and directed by soon to be Abbey Theatre Artistic Director, Caitríona McLaughlin, The Gate Theatre finally turns up at the online party. And decked out in McGuinness's The Visiting Hour, makes its entrance with some considerable style.

Part of the Gate At Home initiative, which aims to stream bespoke productions live, The Visiting Hour conveys its complex Daddy daughter tale in real time over the space of a visiting hour. In which unnamed daughter, Roddy, has a socially distanced visit with her unnamed Dad with dementia, Rea, at a nursing home during COVID. Further separated by a pane of glass, their worlds spin, touch, repel and collide, before spinning off wildly again. Yet embedded in nonsense talk of what was and what might never have been lies hidden what is. Glimpsed between vexatious memories of being a runner-up in the Eurovision Song contest, the lunacy of Luxembourg, or the demands placed on a daughter fulfilling filial obligations to a father who doesn't recognise her anymore. Yet even as the sands constantly shift underfoot, leaving few certainties to hold on to, hearts can still call across the maddening divide, finding cracks and fractures of light.

Stephen Rea and Judith Roddy in The Visiting Hour by Frank McGuinness. Image Ros Kavanagh


Bold, beautiful, and brilliantly crafted, McGuinness's looping script coils self-referentially about itself with a musical sense of phrasing. In which the call and response dynamics between Dad and daughter are superbly realised. Aided by some terrific direction by McLaughlin, who, along with the Areaman Company's fluid interplay of camera angles, superbly lit by Paul Keogan, makes live action/reaction shots seem visually seamless. If McGuinness's text can feel like a word association, stream of consciousness exercise in places, his language slips such constraints so as to crackle and sizzle. Throughout, COVID might provide a context, but The Visiting Hour is never confined by it. Rather it transcends it, becomes larger than it, and becomes one of the best plays on COVID in the process. And one of the best online theatrical experiences since COVID.

Judith Roddy in The Visiting Hour by Frank McGuinness. Image Ros Kavanagh


In which Stephen Rea is simply extraordinary as a man lost to his musings and to impotent rage. Even if Katie Davenport's costuming, which holds true to McGuinness's script, leaves a coiffed Rea looking like Anne Rice's vampiric Lestat after a particularly rough night. If Judith Roddy's mask of concentration looks strained and embittered, especially next to Rea's rambling and shifting inattentiveness, it's a mask she lets slip at just the right moments to powerful effect. For when it comes to emotion, Daddy and daughter can ease towards feeling nothing, bitterness, or easy sentiment. What they truly feel living in the subtext of their souls, with snatches of it surfacing fleetingly. Yet under McGuinness's masterful craftsmanship it informs everything, and hits you like a punch to the heart.

Stephen Rea and Judith Roddy in The Visiting Hour by Frank McGuinness. Image Ros Kavanagh

As with any opening night, there's issues, for theatre online is not exempt from a gremlin or two. Lagging and buffering at key moments, the absence of Vincent Brightling's traditional greeting, remind you how much things have changed for The Gate in the past year. Even as some things remain the same. McGuinness, delivering one of his best plays of recent years, is phenomenal. Rea is out of this world. Roddy is simply superb. And The Gate is back with yet another winner. The Visiting Hour. Here for a short time. Don't miss it.


The Visiting Hour by Frank McGuinness, presented by The Gate Theatre, is available online till April 24th. It will be available on demand from May 10th to May 23rd.


For more information, visit The Gate Theatre.


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