Kirwan’s first full length, professionally produced play is an entertaining romp through the rave-centred underbelly of Dublin.
A couple solidarity microphones, a bare set, a cast of two. From the moment the lights went up and Kirwan and Lloyd Anderson began a lyrically explosive rap battle, it was clear that Dublin Oldschool had its roots in fringe theatre. Premiered at the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2014, the play has toured bars, fields and pop-up theatres since. Does this edginess translate to the National’s Dorfman? I think so. Kirwan and Lloyd Anderson’s energy, vibrancy and pace carried the audience through this hour-long performance masterfully; by the end we were no longer on Southbank but in a damp basement bar at a free fringe venue, audience members slurping beer and everyone having a jolly good time.
Set in Dublin in the ‘90s, the play follows the two day bender of Jason, a young man who is passionate about rave music, drug ‘sessions’ and his ex Gemma. From session to session he rolls, escaping the police, losing his belongings, ringing his ma to explain why he won’t be home, with excuses he knows she’s only pretending to believe. Most significantly, he keeps bumping into his ‘junkie’ brother Daniel, who has returned to Dublin destitute after a long absence. Events are clearly inspired by Kirwan’s own experiences growing up in Dublin. In 2001, on the day of 9/11, Kirwan stumbled upon his own brother – homeless and an addict – on a street in London after three years of no contact. In the play, the recurring encounters between Jason and Daniel offer moments of poignancy and reflection in a production which is otherwise hurtling and intense.
Kirwan is a talented writer; the script moves playfully, nimbly between spoken word, rap, prose, song. Metaphors abound – taking ketamine a ‘neopalm explosion in my nostrils’ – and the language is beautifully nostalgic and witty. One particularly striking moment takes place when the kids of Dublin, Galloway and beyond, all gather on an inlet of the River Liffey for a rave. They’re high on drugs, music, life, when suddenly the pace slows as they all look back towards Dublin to watch the sun rising, warm on the face. It is a moment of beautiful serenity – drug induced or otherwise – that takes place just after dealer Dave ‘The Rave’ has menacingly threatened the DJ to step aside with his liquorice toy gun.
Despite the lack of props and set, the language and physicality of the performance was enough to transport you to the world of suburban raves and directionless youth. It was electric and the two-man cast does nothing to stop the audience becoming acquainted with a whole host of vibrant Dubliners. Lloyd Anderson in particular is a master chameleon, convincingly (if not always a little camply) playing everyone from the belly dancing teenager, lauding the delights of Berlin in her bin bag kaftan, to Jason’s homeless, heroin addict brother.
At the end, however, I didn’t quite know what I’d seen. Was Dublin Oldschool a social commentary? An immortalisation of Kirwan’s youth? An insight into the destructive power of drugs? Kirwan says that Dublin Oldschool is a play about hope, but to me that didn’t translate. Near the end of the play Jason describes a feeling of deep, gnawing emptiness, to which he takes another snort. And his brother, Daniel, says he’s getting better, reducing his dosage each day; Jason scoffs that he’s heard that too many times before. The only hope seemed to be in finding money to pay for the next high, or getting word of the next hot session.
Dublin Oldschool felt more nostalgic than optimistic, ‘the felt sticky sun in a felt Dublin sky’. It was almost like Kirwan was writing a wistful requiem to his youth, now that he is older and has moved on. But even if it wasn’t full of hope, as Kirwan intended, it was a totally enjoyable romp through Dublin’s underworld scene.
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