Mixing deep melancholy with humour, both light and dark hearted, First Love is incredibly powerful. Based on the novel by Samuel Beckett, it follows a homeless Dubliner’s tale of his father’s death and his first experience of love, or as close to love as he ever knew. First Love features a frontline pairing of director Michael Colgan and performer Barry McGovern, the presence of whom eliminates all possibility of this production being anything short of exquisite.
Colgan and McGovern are a powerful partnership. The stage is a commanded with deliberately choreographed yet entirely natural movement. The character’s immense cynicism is equalled only by his darkly humourous charm, and McGovern manages to capture this exquisitely, with an infinitely deep understanding and admiration. The script beautifully captures the spirit of Beckett’s novel, with some grim moments where the audience audibly groans in disgust, but we’re also given permission throughout to laugh at these moments of pitch black humour.
The piece’s design is sparse and simple, and in many ways reflects McGovern’s character, homeless and possessionless. The only piece of furniture on the stage is a wooden bench, necessary for both story and performance. Lighting is used gently, mainly for illuminating the playing space, which James McConnell does beautifully with use of various shades and angles to change our perception of the performance. The most technical aspect is in the use of the clouded gauze backdrop, which, depending on the light, allows for moments where we can see behind it, showing us a door and a window. It is a lovely subtle inclusion from the design team, and helps to anchor the story in specific spaces.
Colgan previously produced another production of First Love, starring Hollywood A-lister Ralph Fiennes in the leading role. With such ‘star power’ present, perhaps this production was a superior one, but to use a line from the show – “Somehow I think not”. No matter how exquisite a performance Ralph Fiennes may have given, it is impossible that it could have equalled the uniqueness of the relationship between Colgan and McGovern, who are a match made in heaven. Having shared their love for Beckett with one another for 45 years, I struggle to imagine there being a more qualified or talented pair to undertake First Love. Together they have produced a truly wondrous piece of theatre.