Down by the River

Michael Bates in 'Down by the River' written and directed by Paul Kennedy.

Michael Bates in 'Down by the River' written and directed by Paul Kennedy.

As contemporary theatre becomes increasingly interactive, sensually stimulating, and collaborative, it is gradually less common to attend a performance which features a solo actor onstage with only a chair as a prop. Every so often a one-man show is produced that reconfirms our faith in the monologue play. Such is the case with Paul Kennedy’s Down by the River, a play that reminds us of the powerful effect of non-dramatic theatre, whilst simultaneously engaging an engrossed audience in what is, ultimately, a really good story.

Matt, performed by Michael Bates, is a bus driver from Ringsend, fruitlessly fighting for a marriage that already seems to be doomed. His wife Suzie joins a “self-development” class at the local community centre where she meets the “posh” Jessica, and Matt becomes increasingly suspicious of their friendship. He accompanies his wife and her new pal to an exhibition of art by the wild Robbie Kilbourne an enigmatic enfant terrible whose paintings feature both men and women “in the nip”. Kilbourne later approaches Matt with the idea for a new installation—(“Whah…fitting kitchens?” asks Matt.) Kilbourne wants to plant mannequins on a Dublin Bus and film the response of the oblivious passengers, an installation that will surpass even “Tracey Emin’s knickers”. After that, he will take the mannequins from the bus and place them in an art gallery, accompanied by a screening of the film. Matt is incredulous, feeling increasingly isolated from both his wife and from this new cosmopolitan world she seems to have embraced, where “everyone looks like they’ve just washed their hair”. When Suzie leaves him, Matt crumbles, prompting a series of increasingly bizarre events that lead him on a frantic cross-country escapade.

Bates is amicable and plausible as Matt, emerging onto the stage in a black leather jacket and jeans, hair-slicked back in an unassuming manner that also suggests a desire for approval. Bates seamlessly slips into an array of hilarious personae, oscillating between the sincere and the sardonically irreverent. Under Kennedy’s direction, Bates’s energetic, charismatic performance carries the piece effortlessly through its 60 minutes, whilst the intimate setting of the Viking Theatre seems the perfect backdrop for the confessional tone of the piece. The writing is richly textured and imagistic, and Kennedy succeeds in prolonging the dramatic suspense of the play by refusing to grant the audience the reassurance of either reconciliation or closure.

Down by the River is a tragicomic play that humanises Matt’s plight as an ordinary decent criminal on a siege of revenge. Kennedy’s words dramatise a recognizable human rage, a rage that only emerges when the heart is broken, and warns of the potential catastrophic consequences of our actions. Ultimately, Matt experiences an epiphany, “down by the river” that transcends the melodramatic details of his circumstances and questions the validity of our knee-jerk reactions to rejection. This play reminds us that life and death persevere, regardless of our own existential feelings of despair.

Emma Creedon is currently finishing a PhD on Drama at UCD. She teaches English and Drama at UCD and at NUI Galway.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Down by the River by Paul Kennedy

17 - 22 September, 2012

Produced by Focus Theatre
In The Viking Theatre

Written and Directed by Paul Kennedy

With: Michael Bates