Theatrical: ‘Last orders at the dockside’

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Disclaimer: This play ‘officially opens’ tonight. The Wednesday performance I saw, was the second preview show, for which I paid for my ticket. Hence I am not a ‘critic’. This review is based on my opinion as a paying customer, so I am not bound by the critic’s etiquette of not reviewing before opening night.

‘Last orders at the Dockside’ is the latest play written by Dermot Bolger, directed by Graham McLaren, and is part of the Dublin Theatre Festival at the Abbey Theatre. Set in 1980 on the night that Johnny Logan won the Eurovision Song Contest, a community gathers in the Dockside Bar along the North Wall Quays to commemorate Luke Dempsey, a recently deceased docker. The Dublin docklands in 1980 were a far different beast to what they are today. Starting at the Custom House by the river Liffey, they stretched all the way out to the sea. For generations entire families lived in docker communities close to the quays, where the men would gather every morning for ‘reads’ where their names would be called to work, to unload the cargo from arriving ships. In 1980 automation meant that this dangerous, centuries old way of life was under threat. These were communities under siege, their way of life facing extinction. The future of the Docklands as a shiny, glass monument to capitalism – the International Financial Services Centre with its gleaming mirrored buildings housing banks, insurance companies and my block of flats – was unknown.

The widow Maisie Dempsey (Brid Ni Neachtain) sits in the bar. She is joined by her family – all of whom are employed in the Docks. Her son Alfie (Anthony Brophy) is struggling financially. This is putting a strain on his marriage to Cathy (Lisa Lambe) . Cathy dreams of life away from the docks. Cathy’s  brothers Sean (Aidan Kelly) and Chris (Stephen Jones) – dock workers both – have a strained relationship. Chris has just started a relationship with a nurse from Glasnevin named Lyn (Juliette Crosbie) who has ambitions beyond Dublin. As they sit and reminisce, a face from the past emerges. Ray (Jimmy Smallhorne) a friend of the dead docker reappears after decades. Local gurrier Macker (Terry O’Neill) has some favours to call in from Alfie and Cathy.

Meanwhile Johnny Logan is being the great big ride that he was, on the television, while singing for Ireland.

It’s a good play. Casting a nostalgic eye over a recent history that is remembered by members of Dublin communities, over a certain age, these stories are recounted with both pathos and a sense of humour (apparently Sandymount is only Ringsend with notions). This end of days era for the old docklands is unknown to anyone under the age of fifty so as an account of a time period that has passed is useful. The set is evocative of an old school pub with cigarette stained walls. The sound of Johnny Logan singing at Eurovision is quite lovely. The ensemble cast works well together. Particular praise is reserved for Ni Neachtain as Maisie – an acerbic curmudgeon who is riveting during her scenes. Also noteworthy is Terry O’Neill as the villainous Macker – an intimidating presence.

It’s by no means perfect though. The running time is close to three hours (including intermission) which is quite a slog. The live music elements could be shortened as they tend to drag out – this is no reflection on Lisa Lambe and George Murphy (who plays the barman Caruso) who have lovely singing voices. This is a play not a musical– so many songs are superfluous to the narrative and slightly distracting.

A comparison between this play and ‘In our veins’ by Lee Coffey which played at the Peacock (the mini-Abbey) earlier this year is unavoidable (you can read my review HERE. Like this play ‘In our veins’ was developed as a collaboration between Dublin Port Company and the Abbey Theatre. ‘Last orders at the dockside’ loses in this imaginary competition. ‘In our veins’ was a richer, more moving story of three generations of a family who worked on the docks. The Bolger play seems slightly more contrived – the Docks are the star, and the characters are explained through the prism of dockland issues and politics. This would be unnoticeable were both plays not staged so close to each other. However they were and that is my conclusion.

What struck me strongly about ‘Last orders at the dockside’ were the parallels between this bygone era of recent Dublin history and the current plight of rural Ireland. As automation killed the dockside way of life, the centralisation of all economic activity in Ireland in Dublin (and to a lesser extent the other urban areas) is killing rural Ireland, with young people being forced out of economic necessity to flee to the city, killing the once vibrant communities dwelling in small towns.

Dublin survived the death of the old docklands. I hope there is a plan to reincarnate rural Ireland. Sadly this currently seems unlikely.

‘Last orders at the Dockside’ runs at the Abbey until October 26th. It’s a play well worth seeing.

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