The Daylight Atheist – Old Red Lion Theatre, London

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer: Tom Scott

Director: Richard Pannzenbock

A hit in New Zealand and Australia, Tom Scott’s 2002 Daylight Atheist finally receives its UK debut at the Old Red Lion Theatre. Owen Lindsay is superb as Danny, the Northern Irish man who emigrates to New Zealand after the Second World War, but at two hours long the play is far too slow and the story suffers from a lack of focus.

We first meet Danny when he is eight years old living in Ulster with his large family. He’s happy enough there but, after his uncle dies, Danny is sent to live with his Aunt Betty, who is lonely and desperate for company. He yearns to be back with his brothers and sisters and stays in his room; he’s not the company that his aunt desires. He can hear his aunt crying at night and wonders if she, too, can hear the sound of his tears.

It’s a perfect Dickensian start but just as we get settled into this story about the worst kind of orphan – one whose parents haven’t died – Danny is in the Air Force in postwar Germany. And just as quickly he’s back in Ireland touring the South on his motorcycle. In Ballybunion, he meets Dingbat, his future wife, just months before he packs in preparation to move to the Southern Hemisphere.

While Danny sets up home in a new country, Scott’s play never puts down roots. New themes and issues intrude constantly. We hear about Jack, Danny’s Māori friend in the Air Force, and Jack’s struggle with cancer. We’re told about Danny’s son’s fear of water at a school swimming competition and about the primitive outside toilet that requires regular emptying. This episodic approach is more suited to a radio serial such as Book at Bedtime where each story has its own beginning and end in a 15-minute format. The descriptions of poverty and tragedy are reminiscent of Angela’s Ashes, albeit that they take place on the other side of the world.

Only at the end when Danny hears his son’s nightly tears does the play achieve any sense of circularity. Fortunately, Owen Lindsay’s performance goes some way to paper up the cracks with his committed and tireless portrayal of a man who shifts from drifter to bully. At times, it’s hard to see what a despicable man Danny has become, terrorising his children and his wife, because Lindsay is so welcoming in his manner. It’s down to his fine acting that the turning point in his character is almost impossible to perceive.

His accents are spot on too, slickly switching from Irish to Cockney to Kiwi. He never once slips or stumbles his lines, even though there are a lot of them in this cradle-to-grave narrative. Richard Pannzenbock’s meticulous set is a highlight too, detailing the harshness of a life wrecked by anger and alcohol; the walls of Danny’s room are stripped to show their insides while a vase is full of wilted flowers. Austrian Pannzenbock, in his first show in the UK, also directs with a similar eye to detail. However, the pace is too unhurried for such a one-man show as this.

Runs until 4 May 2024

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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