Monday June 17, 2024
NEVER CLOSER
Review

NEVER CLOSER

By Diana Simmonds
May 31 2024

NEVER CLOSER, Belvoir St Theatre, 25 May-16 June 2024. Photography by Brett Boardman: above - Emma Diaz, Adam Sollis, Ariadne Sgouros, Mabel Li and Raj Labade; below - Labade and Diaz; below again - Philip Lynch and Mabel Li

Never Closer is Grace Chapple’s first full-length play. It was originally seen in 2022 as part of 25A, the Downstairs hot house, and such was its success it was earmarked for a main stage production. And it so deserves this run.

Never Closer is a remarkable work. Chapple has drawn on her mother’s Northern Irish roots, and more, to craft an authentic story of both that benighted corner of the Irish island and of a group of friends during “The Troubles”. Opening on a boozy night at Deidre’s (Emma Diaz), the raucously merry tone would be familiar to fans of Derry Girls, but with an added IRA intervention to interrupt the evening.

So accustomed are the friends to such events they immediately know the local border checkpoint was the target. Their home town is on the boundary between the Republic and the Six (colonised) Counties, so death and explosions of sectarian warfare are a fact of daily life.

The friends are on the brink of change with Naimh (pronounced “Neve” and played by Mabel Li) leaving for London to do medicine. In the political and social climate of the time it’s a cataclysmic decision. Few living in the UK – or elsewhere – could understand, then or now, the resentment and hatred towards the Brits that bubbled deep in the Catholic hearts of Northern Ireland.

NEVER CLOSER

Chapple fast-forwards ten years to Christmas Eve and an almost accidental gathering of the group whose states range from adrift to feckless, sorrowing (Dierdre’s mother has died), to smouldering fury with Conor (Adam Sollis) deep into the nationalist cause as INLA and IPLO and other groups add to the traditional militants violently opposing Westminster’s rule.

Meanwhile Mary (Ariadne Sgouros), the longtime fun girl and extrovert who nevertheless works in an insurance office, announces she’s off to New York for a fresh start, while Jimmy (Raj Labade) long ago gave up his guitar for drudgery on the family farm and carrying a hopeless love for Deirdre, now a school teacher and having a thing with Conor.

Naimh’s unexpected arrival is a series of shocks. First of all, she has not been seen in ten years and not kept up with her angry bestie Deidre. Second, her Ulster brogue has been replaced by Oxford precision. And finally, her fiancé Harry (Philip Lynch) is not only a twitty Brit but also a Crown Prosecutor and therefore the worst of all possible enemies.

Too much Jameson’s and cigarettes fuel the slide from astonished to appalled and on into varying degrees of rage. Chapple’s dialogue for each character (the actors were all in the original production) is masterly. Not only does she interweave the individual lives, with their small dramas, but also manages to build in a strong sense of overwhelming spiritual poverty and alienation, unfulfilled potential and the bewilderment of a people trapped in sporadic but vicious civil war.

NEVER CLOSER

Each of the friends wants more and better and these ambitions are not excessive, but rarely attainable in a colonised country. All of this – personal and political – is present, yet it’s neither a diatribe nor didactic but rather a compelling drama with a generous sprinkling of laughter and six riveting performances. And Laura Farrell’s work as vocal coach is outstanding in fixing the fiendish Ulster accent!

Never Closer takes place in Deirdre’s family home, whose only change in ten years is a lot of clutter. Directed with pace and clarity by Hannah Goodwin, the only question mark hangs over the set (Grace Deacon, with lighting by Phoebe Pilcher). It’s a structure that’s not quite kitchen, or dining room, or lounge, and which sits oddly in the space so the layout of the house doesn’t make sense. That wouldn’t matter if the brown-ish colour scheme, floral curtains and nondescript furnishings, as well as Keerthi Subramanyam’s costumes, didn’t say “lower middle class naturalism” quite so loudly and successfully.

Nevertheless, Never Closer is an exciting achievement and yet another Must See in a crowded time of good things. Recommended without reservation.

 

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