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Never Closer

Never Closer
Writer: Grace Chapple
Director: Hannah Goodwin
Belvoir Street Theatre
May 29 – June 16, 2024

Grace Chapple’s moving Never Closer quickly engages its audience in the lives of five teenagers in the time of “The Troubles”, the violent 30-year war that ravaged Northern Ireland from the ’60s to the ’90s. When we meet them again a decade later, we can appreciate how the decisions they made, or didn’t make, were shaped by their response to the brutal conflict in their small town on a disputed border area.

We first meet them at Christmas when they have gathered to farewell Niamh (Mabel Li) who is leaving for London to study medicine. Deidre (Emma Diaz) sits on the table telling a story about seeing the ghost of a woman drowned prior to her wedding and enjoying the limelight it brings her. Niamh asks if it could have been a banshee – a female Gaelic spirit who appears as a warning that one of a family may die – adding a mythic note to Deidre’s story telling. Much later when the group are reunited, Jimmy (Raj Labade) sings the melancholy traditional song of a ghostly love, “She stepped away from me” and we see a different past – the otherworldly past of Gaelic myths – implicit in the names of Deidre, Connor and Niamh, underlying the violent present.

Like most teenagers they are joined by proximity and a mutual desire to have fun. As they make jokes and indulge in a twitchy banter, the ensemble cast skilfully convey the group’s desire for camaraderie but failure to reach it until alcohol finally releases them into crazy jollity. Niamh’s departure is a catalyst as the moody Connor (Adam Sollis) hungers for her, Deidre sees it as a betrayal and an escape, Mary (Ariadne Sgouros) feels she will find a more secure place in the group, and quiet Jimmy is not easy to read.

When they are reunited 10 years later at Christmas, the same claustrophobic setting signals circumstances have not changed for Deidre. However, it is time for plans and secrets to be revealed: churlishly by an embittered Connor, shyly by Jimmy, abruptly by Mary and the most startling of all, the production of an English fiancé, Harry (Philip Lynch), by Niamh as well as London enunciation. Deidre does not disguise her resentment, some of which has basis, in her perception that she has never moved on. Mary and Jimmy, however, are ready for a geographic escape, but Connor is tied through tragic circumstances to place.

The cast is successful at creating characters about whom we care intensely and for whom we want healing. Sgouros gives us a double-sided Mary, annoyingly riotous but who has the gift for breaking the tension that inevitably builds up between the others while Lynch, who begins as comically awkward stranger, reveals an engaging warmth. Li’s Niamh is moving as she tries to navigate her relationship with the desperate Connor, portrayed convincingly by Sollis as a mixture of bravado and hurt. Labade’s Jimmy is the antithesis of Connor, quietly observant, a comforter and loyal in its kindest meaning.

Emma Diaz as Deidre is the centre of the play. Complicated and conflicted, angry and loving, bossy and passive, Diaz is uncomfortably accurate in portraying a woman in whom the past is devouring the present, and for whom a different future is as yet unimaginable.

Sympathetically directed by Hannah Goodwin, authentically staged (set design by Grace Deacon) and costumed (Keerthi Subramanyam) with clever use of light and sound, Never Closer, while often hilarious, is relevant to this present time of brutal internal divisiveness.

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