Citysong, Soho Theatre

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by Maeve Ryan

Citysong contemplates the timeless cycle of life by following three generations of a family on one important day. Writer Dylan Coburn Gray calls this lyrical piece a ‘play for voices’ and indeed the script began its life as spoken word. It won the Verity Bargate Award, which brought it from Ireland’s national theatre, the Abbey, to London. Both inner city theatres are perfect settings for this evocation of life and family narrated by a cab driver in a rain-soaked, streetlamp-lit Dublin.

Set designer Sarah Bacon’s huge pane of cracked glass dramatically splits the stage, and the metaphor is effective. The cracks outline the shape of Dublin itself, and Paul Keogan’s lighting occasionally allows us to see ourselves reflected and refracted in it, as it becomes the rearview mirror through which our cabdriver storyteller views the fares in his taxi. The other half of the structure is a window, and the actors step over its threshold and into the view of the driver, who plays out their lives as they are, or as he imagines them to be – or somewhere in between. Thus, our narrator curates our view of time, bending and refracting it, showing how the lives of parents and children can reflect each other despite the changing decades.

Chief storytelling responsibility is shared by actors Dan Monaghan and Amy Conroy, a device which works seamlessly, and they join a cast of six to play over 60 roles. Characters speak about themselves, then bend into their own story and address other characters on stage. Indeed, it is easy to forget that our cabdriver narrator is not omniscient, until he reappears. The timeshifting and focus is effortless and coherent thanks to keenly drawn physical work by the actors (and movement director Sue Mythen), and choices are in delicate sympathy with Caitriona McLaughlin’s fluid staging.

This is a wonderful feat of ensemble storytelling. There are moments when the poetry washes over so easily that the images disappear as soon as they arrive,  and stalling moments that work to create humour or stillness. The lyrical playfulness and variety is a delight. (It is not a surprise to read that playwright Dylan Coburn Gray originally studied musicology.) The most obvious inspiration for Citysong is Dylan Thomas’s ‘Under Milk Wood’, but the writer also credits Kate Tempest as inspiration.  It may be the setting, but Dublin writers also come to mind when listening – Coburn is more penetrable than Joyce, less dense than O’Casey, as poetic as Christopher Nolan and occasionally as funny as Roddy Doyle. Sound designers Adrienne Quartly and Jennifer O’Malley have created long stretched notes which add stakes to the delicate human stories, and the steady rhythm of the sea at Dollymount Strand makes time feel still.

Citysong is celebratory without being sentimental. It is an uplifting experience that feels participatory despite its traditional theatrical treatment – at certain moments the audience (and our mirrored selves) sighed and chuckled like a choir. Many will see themselves in the awkward teenager Fionn yearning to be accepted, or the suddenly widowed Brigid, separated from the pairing she was used to living in. Like a piece of music, each set piece in this colourful canvas of a play has its own rhythm and pace. It was a pleasure to witness this beautiful, spoken word play interpreted so sensitively for the stage.

Citysong runs through 6 July in London.

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