Michael Portillo - Punch-drunk

Theatre - Alcoholic lovers fascinate and charm, until they start to fight, writes Michael Portillo

Was Arkle a horse or a god? In 1964, he sent the Irish into ecstasy with his Gold Cup triumph over the larger English steeplechaser Mill House. In later years at Cheltenham, he faced no respectable opposition, winning by 30 lengths in 1966.

The horse's brilliant career inspires the hero Donal in Owen McCafferty's new adaptation of J P Miller's Days of Wine and Roses. The young Belfast bookmaker's clerk is already predicting Arkle's greatness when, in 1962, he decides to leave Northern Ireland for a position in London. Life is wonderful during the days of Arkle's triumphs. Donal has money, status and fun.

But as the poet Ernest Dowson wrote in the 19th century: "They are not long, the days of wine and roses." By December 1966, the horse has run its last race, retired with a broken leg, and Donal's dreams have been drowned in alcohol.

McCafferty has performed a very thorough make-over on Miller's original 1950s script for US television, which was adapted into a film starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick in 1962. In the new version, Donal and Mona meet in the departure lounge at Belfast airport. Their speech patterns owe everything to Ulster and nothing to Miller. The characters talk almost obsessively about their love of London, a device that puts further distance between this rewrite and its American inspiration. On film, Lemmon and Remick immortalised the roles of the dipsomaniac couple, but McCafferty creates plenty of room for his actors to offer a new interpretation.

The interaction between the man and woman is fascinating. When they meet, he strikes up the conversation. He is cocky but charming, with a formidable gift of the gab. He is travelling to London with the certainty of a job, and loves to be in control of his destiny. While Mona is initially more reserved, she is the more audacious. The girl is travelling to England on a whim, purely be-cause she feels it is something she has to do. It is the excitement of the unknown that drives her. With-in minutes, she takes the driving seat in their relationship. But within minutes, too, she has broken the habit of a lifetime and accepted a drink from his hip flask.

Later on, it is Donal who attempts to re-establish control over their lives by recognising that they have both become alcoholics. He manages to give up - for a while, at least. He joins Alcoholics Anonymous, and makes a long confession of his dependency and character failings. But Mona refuses to face up to the truth. She is addicted not only to drink, but to the thrill of being out of control. In her most telling line, she accuses Donal of having brought her into the world of booze. That is true, but she refuses to accept his lead out of it.

Peter McDonald's Donal charms the audience as effectively as he does Mona. His bubbly self-assurance wins us over, and we come to view life as he sees it. We join him in believing that it is great to be young in London, and that existence could hold no finer purpose than partying day and night. He describes Arkle's triumph over Mill House so vividly that it is as though we were there with him - and, what's more, backing the Irish horse against the English.

The greatest dramatic success of the play is that we are so drawn to empathise with Donal. We long for him to pull out of his drink-induced nosedive. But there also lies the production's weakness. McDonald is too winsome. It doesn't quite ring true when he confesses at the AA meeting, "I feel like a good man, but I don't act like a good man", because he never ceases to be likeable to the audience. He hits Mona twice, but the violence jars, seeming out of place with what we know of his personality. The fights are very badly done, which doesn't help.

The director Peter Gill, working in the confined space of the Donmar Warehouse, makes his actors change on stage between scenes. There is no interval and no opportunity for adjustments to make-up. The characters do not age, even though the action occurs over eight years and Donal complains that drink has made him look a decade older than his age. The actors' failure to deteriorate physically handicaps the play's credibility. When Mona moves into a bedsit, neither she nor it looks too bad. The couple's house gets a bit untidy with whiskey bottles lying around, but that's about as bad as it gets.

Anne-Marie Duff (Mona) is better known than McDonald, especially for her role in Channel 4's Shameless. She holds up her end well, offering us a lovely freshness in the opening scenes. But McCafferty invested all his love in Donal, and gave him the best lines. When Mona's innocence has vanished, she falls into verbal and physical violence. Alas, it fails to engage us. None the less, the play has two memorable stars: McDonald and a deity called Arkle.

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This article first appeared in the 07 March 2005 issue of the New Statesman, The Bling Bling List