CitySong – Soho Theatre, London

Writer: Dylan Coburn Gray

Director: Caitriona McLaughlin

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Capturing the tone of a city and its people, distilling hundreds of thousands of lives into a single narrative structure seems like a near impossible task, yet for many writers, the creation of these pen portraits become a cathartic exercise, a love letter to the place they call home. Dylan Coburn Gray’s lyrical 90-minute Dublin-based drama CitySong is a celebration of family, that uses language to explore the many layers of individual and collective memory that mark the passage of time.

As a taxi driver retires from the night shift, Kate is giving birth to her first child with partner Rob at her side while across the city her mother Bridget studies the photographs of her younger selves and the family now dispersed across Dublin. Coburn Gray’s characters relive different periods of their lives as memories of happiness, grief, pride, loss, fear and joy in the life cycle of human experience plays out in just one day.

Using a verse-based approach and poetic structure, CitySongis an arresting aural and theatrical experience. Coburn Gray’s use of language is very particular – “kept where they were un, shevelled where they were dis’ – with every word and phrase carefully chosen to create a specific effect that speaks both to the metaphysical literary traditions of Irish writing and the urban setting that inform the speed and delivery of the poetry. Coburn Gray utilises the idea of a storyteller but democratises it, moving control of the story between different performers while providing additional context and insight that enhance the character’s dialogue.

The result is to create a complex and integrated drama filled with memories within memories that slip effortlessly between protagonists as well as through time. CitySong is obsessed with time and timelessness in fact, making the point that while the cycles of life – birth, marriage and death – continue, time itself is unrelenting and unstoppable, that whatever happens at the individual level, the city as an entity goes ever onwards – ‘Time shrugs on and makes hosts of everyone.”

The narrator duties are largely shared by Dan Monaghan and Amy Conroy who use their delivery style to create a dreamlike atmosphere that supports the ebb and flow of tides of memory and emotion at different points in the play. Clare McKenna’s Bridget has some of the shows most tender moments as an awkwardness and distance enters her marriage, made more affecting by the sweetness of early dates at the dancehalls of the 1960s and the fracturing of her stability after her husband’s death.

Bláithin MacGabhann, Clare Mckenna and Daryl McCormack complete the cast in a number of roles including teachers Kate and Rob whose baby initiates the story and a collection of extended family members, local gossips and clubbers. The whole play takes place in front of Sarah Bacon’s beautiful Dublin map, made of glass that carves out each of the city’s districts like a giant interconnected network, reflecting the characters like a mirror, sometimes transparent, sometimes shining against Paul Keogan’s tonal lighting design.

Director Caitriona McLaughlin creates a seamless flow around the stage as eras, perspectives and experiences swim together. CitySong is a play that demands your attention and divorced from the day-to-day political and economic context of the years it covers, you can momentarily lose your place, but the overall effect of Coburn Gray’s writing captures the timeless nature of city life where generations of families come and go but individuals are still its beating heart,

Runs until 6 July 2019 | Image: Contributed

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Complex and integrated drama

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