Saturday, 15 February 2014


Three individuals wrestle with their inner and outer demons in a drama-cum-thriller staged in Derry-Londonderry's Playhouse Theatre

The stars that shine in the faces of those fortunate enough to brave Derry-Londonderry's wintry weather for the world premiere of local playwright and teacher Jonathan Bailie's All There Is are, in fact, not stars at all. What they are is a video visual of moving city lights, projected from the rear of the Playhouse Theatre onto a large, see-through screen that envelops the stage.

When one puts the pieces together, the image is a little troubling: the lights are reflecting off a windshield of a continuously driving car. It's a metaphor for a long road to nowhere bouncing right back in the individual's face, a summation of the lives that the play's characters - a good-hearted taxi driver, an apathetic nurse and an addicted young man - think they lead. The title of the play itself is also a summation: in the same way that the characters' own lives are not "all there is" to them, the seemingly well-trodden path of an "angsty character piece" or a "noir drama" is not "all there is" to the production.

All There Is starts out similarly to Jennifer Johnston's Three Monologues, but later morphs into an entirely different beast. It really thrives on triple-pronged characterization, a strong sense of heart, great visual invention, and unsettling, inter-relative turning points. Bailie and director JP Conaghan mostly structure the plot through the individual eyes and thoughts of the three central characters and their reactions to everyone around them, in their not-so-separate lives. It's really less Three Monologues than Three Points Of View: Soon To Go Amok.

The video visual fades, revealing the stage itself. The taxi driver, played by Micky Kelly, has put his self-pitying soliloquy about missed opportunities in his life on hold, to recount how his night has been changed by the finding of a battered and bruised young woman on the Derry streets. Subverting the mythical epithet about any "City Of Culture" - that bad things aren't supposed to happen, but when they do, they should be dealt with and not just swept under the surface - the driver does the right thing and takes her to hospital.

Focus then switches to a hospital nurse, played by Nicky Harley. Her distinctive Derry brogue is laden with tiresome disappointment, and she does not know why she is not frightened by the sight of such "damaged goods". Maybe, just maybe, the repetition in her job has anaesthetised her to it? She wouldn't be alone there; as more video visuals indicate, boredom has driven the taxi driver to drink and a young man, played by Francis Harkin, to drugs.

The danger of slipping too heavily into an insulated routine, and forgetting the world around you, is brutally underlined; it's apparent that Harley's nurse is taking the pills she's distributing as a coping mechanism. Likewise for the druggie and his cocaine, and the taxi driver and his alcohol. Further complications arise when it's apparent that the wounded young woman might well be the druggie's girlfriend.

How easy it would be for Bailie and the cast to wallow in wangst here, yet a stark naturalism, well rounded portrayals and effective use of Kristine Donnan's sometimes pounding, sometimes minimalist musical score elevate All There Is to the level of gripping drama. Like some of the best of its kind, All There Is scores high marks not so much from action but reaction; the characters' conflicted and tortured reactions to the incident that has raised them from their slumbering lives.

Most rounded of all is Harley, whose portrayal of the nurse, in tandem with Bailie's script, plumbs greater depths. Besides the frustration and even insomnia brought upon her by long, unvarying working hours, she is haunted by the loss of the loving mother and caring friends she once had. Both went "somewhere else"; the former, without directly implying it, is mentally unrecognizable, the latter are grown up and married. Everyone knows that no one can be there for us forever, yet, like surely everyone else, Harley's nurse never wanted to contemplate the worst. It's a common, hidden fear, and through Harley's performance, it rings horribly true.

Once the characters are defined, the play casts away all reservations. Dialogue, sight, sound, lighting and tight plotting take precedence over the thoughtful monologues for the remainder of the show. A passionate argument between the druggie and nurse paves way for blame on both sides, triggering an unexpected and damaging encounter with the taxi driver, his car and the druggie in the streets.

With the incident spreading beyond the central characters and into the lives of the so far unseen names in the story, multiple character playing is called for. Kelly, Harley and Harkin are all up to the task, pushing the second act into the territory of a sometimes breathless, sometimes violent, but consistently dramatic thriller where all three characters, their inner demons and their outer demons are forced to connect.

If Harley is the most heartfelt, and Kelly is a very effective middleman, it is Harkin who takes centre stage during the most thrilling elements. Driven by rage and addiction, it is shocking how a seemingly minor incident - a supposed "hill of beans" in a crazy world - leads to violence, mistrust and even bloodshed in his hands.

Even then, the ultimate impression of All There Is is left not by the last moment of action, but the last expression; the final, expository reels of dialogue peeling away to place a sobering, traumatised, but most importantly, human face on the proceedings.

All There Is runs in Derry-Londonderry's Playhouse Theatre until February 15, with a further run at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast from February 27 to March 1.