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Days of Wine and Roses
by Charlotte Loveridge

We were like movie stars - I used to imagine we didn't walk, we glided - now all we do is stumble - it wasn't supposed to be like this
--- Donal
Days of Wine and Roses
Anne-Marie Duff as Mona
(Photo: Steve Cummiskey)
In Belfast 1962 two young people meet at the airport on their way to start a new life in London. Excited, hopeful and slightly apprehensive, their spontaneous conversation leads to an eight-year relationship which evolves in the course of the play. Alcohol, however, assumes an increasingly dominant role in their lives, fragmenting their happiness and disintegrating their hopes. In this first, paradigmatic scene, Donal (Peter Mcdonald) offers the hitherto teetotal Mona (Anne Marie-Duff) a sip of whiskey from his flask. When his back is turned, however, Mona surreptitiously takes another mouthful. Donal clearly introduces the increasingly tyrannical presence of drink into their lives but he is also more aware and in control than the naively impulsive and impressionable Mona. Beneath the intricate subtleties of their relationship, the ultimate truth is that Mona is corrupted by Donal before being abandoned to a lonely world of alcoholic dependence and degradation.

Anne Marie-Duff's performance as Mona is superbly accomplished and yet simultaneously natural. She is one of those very rare actors who is so convincing when playing a certain part that, for the duration of that performance, it is inconceivable that she could ever be anyone else. At times her large beautiful eyes are so full of pleading that even in the midst of alcoholic squalor, she seems innocent and is incredibly affecting. Furthermore, the nuanced expertise of her performance is well suited to the intimate space of the Donmar's auditorium. She is so engaging that the audience's sympathies are not as finely poised between the couple as they might be. In any case, Donal is a more ambivalent character: better able to understand their situation objectively but shockingly violent when under the influence of whisky or its deprivation. Peter McDonald is capable enough to encompass the extremes of Donal's personality persuasively.

Peter Gill's direction is of that peculiar kind of consummate competence whereby the end product appears so effortlessly naturalistic that it conceals the skill and industry required to achieve it. There were also a number of intelligent directorial touches which I especially enjoyed; for example, the characters change onstage so that the audience are clearly witnessing their entire development through the selective, synecdochic scenes. Again, the broken furniture, the relics of earlier alcohol-fuelled aggressive bouts remain onstage providing the sense of the continuity of the coupe's progressive decline.

The play is performed at two levels, the Donmar's balcony becomes a bridge over the Thames for outdoor scenes with their flat below. As they gaze out over the cityscape what the audience sees is only the interior of their dowdy flat, reflecting how their domestic troubles have taken over from the dream. Iconic popular music from the 1960s punctuates the scenes and gives an aural indication of time passing.

Owen McCafferty's new version adapts J.P Miller's original 1958 teleplay which was later made into a film starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. His dialogue feels uncontrived whilst being poignantly revealing. Lightly comic moments blend into the deepening tragedy, making the two characters more humanly sympathetic. As the only members of the cast, the couple's self-destructive insularity, alone in a foreign city, is emphasized. McCafferty makes the iconic Irish racehorse Arkle full of symbolic significance. The horse's astounding success on the track reflects the hopeful prosperity of Donal and Mona's new London life but when Arkle eventually dies, the realization of their own dream's death is close at hand.

The title Days of Wine and Roses is a quote from the nineteenth-century poet Ernest Dowson. His poem entitled Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam (or the short span of life forbids us the hope of enduring long) encapsulates the poet Horace's "carpe diem" sentiment. The play subtly subverts this message of life and youth's ephemerality. While wine in Horace and Dowson is a symbol of enjoying the present, alcohol is here the catalyst for decline. Rather than old age and death, alcoholic addiction and misery constitute the end. The couple's tragic decline into this state is compressed into the hour and half onstage, reflecting the brevity of human happiness as the audience see the bleakly inevitable progression into tragedy without.

McCafferty's adaptation adds a fresh vitality to a play with enduring themes and Gill's fantastic production at the Donmar deserves to be seen.

Days of Wine and Roses
Written by JP Miller
In a new version by Owen McCafferty
Directed by Peter Gill

Starring: Anne-Marie Duff
With: Peter McDonald
Design: Alison Chitty
Lighting: Hartley TA Kemp
Sound: Matt McKenzie
Music: Terry Davies
Running time: One hour thirty minutes with no interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6624
Booking to 2nd April 2005.
Reviewed by Charlotte Loveridge based on 24th February 2005 performance at the Donmar Warehouse Earlham Street London WC2 (Tube: Covent Garden)
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