The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle at Smock Alley
October 28, 2013
As you watch The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle, a whimsical ode to loneliness and woe from writer Ross Dungan which ran in the Smock Alley Main Space last month, you may be stricken by the fear that you are being left behind on the platform. As the production shoots out of the starting gate, multiple narrators take it in turns to set up the tale, introducing a sprinkling of seemingly unrelated characters, all sharing a taste for the same rapid vocal delivery. It certainly unnerves and the productions move from the more intimate Lir space means they are now being viewed- or not as the case may be, from three sides.
Thankfully the purity of feeling and rustic warmth of Dungan’s heartfelt text is given life by a cast of performers who flit easily between roles that call for broad caricature and powerful emotions. Who bring the house down one minute with sublime physical comedy and silence it the next with their intense focus on the plays many heartbreaking swerves. It caters not just to the audiences theatrical intellect – the narrative form is a visual and aural treat, but feeds into that great human fear, of dying alone and leaving no mark.
Eric Argyle is dead. Awaking in a purgatorial corridor he’s forced to relive preselected moments from his life, not the good times- of which there were precious few, but the moments that caused him great pain and regret and continue to do so, even though his hearts stopped beating. As Rachel Gleeson’s clip board wielding bureaucrat impatiently interrogates, snapping dry whit against his befuddled demeanour as if it were a wet towel, his past is reenacted before him, forcing him to face the reasons behind his lonely, solitary life.
Meanwhile back in the real world two mourners, his guardian and his mentor, Mr Aldershot and Mr Downey, stand vigil over his grave bickering about how things came to this, all the while worrying about their own mortal footprint, while in a secluded house nearby, a ditched lover is comforted by her confused niece. A hellish night babysitting is interrupted by the arrival of ten thousand pages of a novel, each in an individual stamped address envelope that she must need to be pieced together and delivered to its intended recipient before sunrise.
When not playing a variety of roles across the age spectrum, from lonely old kook to adventurous toddler, school boys, post men and middle aged lovers, the cast of eight read from Argyle’s life story, their interested delivery marking out the beat so it never feels like we’re being drowned in back story rather swept up in the tension. The gentle, folksy, almost consistent guitar adds to the absurd atmosphere and the casts manipulation of a whirligig of lamps, tables and furniture glazes the play with that long lost childhood impulse to enliven the inanimate with imagination. They tell us the desk they have flipped on its legs is now a rooftop, or a door, or a bed and believe it. So we do to.
The acting services the story with enthusiasm, energy and forethought. The actors never run away with the great parts Dungan has written for them, but play off one another so that you get a sense of character, of a world where these people exist, not of knowing technique hammed up for inappropriate laughs. Despite many only appearing briefly on stage you feel the expanding hole in Argyle’s heart as they leave him.
Emmet Kirwan’s earnest panic as the young Argyle matures into a frustrated one in the hands of David McEntagert while Erica Murray endows her multiple parts with a curiosity, so that whether playing a barmy old broad or concerned childer you get a sense of the loneliness life contains, how it manifests in confusing ways and unnerves us without us ever quite grasping quite what’s wrong. But it’s Siobhan Cullen, as a former school friend and possible companion for Eric, who best bestows this show with that sense of powerlessness and chance, that well meaning but flawed morality that can result in a life lived gnawed by indecision.
Ross Dungan sates that much disputed need for well written, well acted, original, imaginative plays that explores its very human concerns without making an issue out of them. His craft is impeccable but it’s his understanding and sympathy for people that is his true talent.