Conor McPherson’s Rum and Vodka was first staged in 1992 when he was still a student at UCD, and in many ways it marks the beginning of a wave of Irish theatre to explore troubled men using the monologue form. Moreover, well before binge-drinking became a national concern, and we posted our hangovers on Facebook, McPherson’s drama took a studied look at our dysfunctional relationship to alcohol.
Played by Kieron Smith, the twenty-four year old protagonist from Raheny is initially propped up at the back of the theatre, before swaggering to the stage to relay his tale. He is ostensibly drunk when he speaks to us and in nearly every situation he recalls. Having married the woman he got pregnant while locked, he now finds himself with a wife, two daughters, a house and responsibilities, and his youth has passed him by. Booze allows him to escape the life he has and sample the one he's missed.
McPherson’s plucky narrative is essentially a knotty web of tears, vomit and awkward sex, enabled by a steady diet of rum and vodka cocktails. Stakes are raised when the bored office employee throws a computer out his window at work, only to land on his superior’s car. This sets off the alcohol orgy, which leads the disaffected young man to the Southside where he meets Myfanwy. She has freedom and money, and he thinks she can ‘cure’ him. But as the hour-long drama unfolds, it’s the sheer force of the character’s self-destructive impulse that dominates over detail.
Smith provides a strong, energetic performance. With impassioned conviction he successfully captures a drunk whose appetites and emotions disregard reason. For the most part he stands to address the audience, swaying slightly from side to side. Occasionally he crouches to give emphasis, or pulls up a chair. Apart from a small table, there are no frills in the theatre at the International Bar, where McPheron’s character also drops off for a drink.
Precisely because the monologue is so wordy, it requires careful direction to prevent the story from meandering. While Smith offers a rich delivery, at times it feels too highly pitched, and would benefit from a bit more restraint in places, if only to balance the tone. After all, McPherson’s text is a confession as well as a story.
With a fine central performance, Gonzo Theatre’s production not only revives an early play by McPherson, but an interesting moment in the development of Irish theatre.