Given Gates of Gold's preoccupation both with possession and the spirits of the dead, it never seemed in doubt that a visitation was in order. The question then was simply would the ghosts of Hilton Edwards and Michael MacLiammoir begin haunting the theatre they founded at the previews of the play inspired by their life together, or would they make their entrance on the first night?
For Gates of Gold, the central gay couple are dubbed Conrad (a perfectly poised Richard Johnson, presumably playing the code version of Hilton) and Gabriel (Alan Howard), his name presumably standing in for that other archangel, Michael. But Frank McGuinness's compact drama set in a Dublin apartment is not striving for biographical reality, just a sense of the pair and their relationship.
Set in the men's later years, their passion has diminished, but love has, if anything, grown. It is now communicated largely through bitter and bitchy verbal jousts.
The playwright's script taps into a rich seam that includes theatrical camp, Lear allusions, supernatural possession and lacerating humour. Howard's Gabriel is an extraordinary, magnificent character, one moment drowning in self-pity, the next laughing in the face of death. His wit is relentless and excoriating, flaying friends, enemies and himself with equal vigour.
The bickering is interrupted by the arrival of a torrid pair of relatives, Gabriel's sister, Kassie (Rosaleen Linehan) and his nephew Ryan (James Kennedy). Like Gabriel, they have issues with the truth.
They tell unbelievable truths, make up fantastic stories, and imagine illnesses. According to Gabriel, his sister has suffered from every ailment known to man "except perhaps the hairlip of the Hapsburgs" which "she is currently developing". The accumulation of their fictions finally becomes so overpowering that we begin to be convinced that Gabriel's relatives are no more than creations of his morphine-primed mind.
The play relies heavily on Howard's close to flawless performance. Rosaleen Linehan's pathological lying is swaggeringly hilarious at times, while Donna Dent's saint-with-a-secret is a warm, layered creation.
Some of the scenarios that surround the dying man, however, even if they are supposed to be surreal, druggy imaginings, come across as rather jumbled, rushed even. Kennedy's Ryan is a strangely lost, unrelentingly self-serious character. In this limbo of the inoperable put-down, anyone so completely lacking in humour or self-knowledge was always going to be an awkward presence.
The Times, 3.5.02.
Another review by Luke Clancy - this time for the Irish Evening Herald.
There was something undeniably spooky about last night's opening of Gates of Gold, a play 'inspired by' the lives of the two men who founded the Gate Theatre, Hilton Edwards and MacLiammóir.
While on stage British actors Richard Johnson and Alan Howard conjured up the spirits of the celebrated theatrical pair, in the auditorium a sense of an otherworldly audience looking on was hard to miss.
As it happens, there was plenty of talk of possession by spirits in Frank McGuinness' play, which charts the final days in the life of Gabriel (Howard in the role that presumably represents MacLiammóir).
As death approaches, he is tended to by his nurse (Donna Dent) and offered a sparring partner for some vicious repartee by his companion Conrad (Johnson, working under a less than sprightly codename for Hilton).
Conrad and Gabriel's vicious bickering is interrupted by the arrival of a pair of relatives, Gabriel's sister Kassie (Rosaleen Linehan) and his nephew Ryan (James Kennedy, in the least rewarding role).
Like Gabriel, they are both given to fabulous lies and stories with a twist. But as we listen to tales of lapsed seminarians in Salamanca, Welsh gauchos and testifying at the McCarthy hearings a sense of unreality starts to take hold. Are these real visitors, or simply the creations of Gabriel's morphine-primed mind? Is there any truth here, or are we watching a dying imagination spraying glorious sparks as it decays?
McGuinness' compact and rewarding play here relies heavily on Howard's work. Luckily enough, the actor turns in a gleaming performance, appropriately full of wit, charm and fiery sadness.
The supporting cast has also been well tuned by director Patrick Mason, with Dent's easeful hard-edge nurse and Linehan's loopy fibber, both achieving something modest, arresting and undeniably special.
Irish Evening Herald, 1.5.02