Almost every audience member laughed during the opening scenes of David Gilna's The Gift of Lightning.
First came the air steward impression, then the ridiculous nightclub dancing, then the lascivious jokes as we were introduced to four friends who ditched Ireland in summer 2010 to work in Boston, Massachusetts. The audience laughed so hard, it was as if they were seeing something so inventive in its humour and so cutting in its insight. The Gift of Lightning is neither of these. It's a shoddy male fantasy punctured by a glut of clichés.
Gilna's lack of originality is the play's greatest flaw. He draws on every cliché possible without realising that they wield no dramatic power. Countless lines back this up – lads' banter such as, "Tell her to come to me if she wants a real man", and desperate girls saying, "I wanna have your babies". And then there are the moments when Gilna has tried to show, not tell, his audience something. What he comes up with is just not realistic: showing a character's boredom by having him count the thousands of flowers on wallpaper print? No one would actually do that. Even when writing about his work in the programme, Gilna drenches himself in cliché and mixed metaphor: "These memories came flooding back like salt to a wound and I tackled them head on." This confusing statement certainly creates vivid images, but we are so puzzled by what he's actually saying about floods and wounds and football manoeuvres that it's hard to decipher what he means. Outside of the language, there are many more familiar and obvious constructions: the central concept of a comatose man's friends confessing their "deepest and darkest secrets" to him lacks the creative approach that could have given this play a shot. As it happens, the audience has to abandon the chronology Gilna had begun earlier and an expectation that people will behave like they do in normal life. That's not to say the play is surreal – that could be the secret to saving it – but that it is unreal by accident.
On top of all this, the play is couched in disappointing representations that stem from a kind of ultimate male fantasy. Women are portrayed as nymphomaniacs at best, sexualised objects at worst: among themselves, they speak like how some men would want them to speak (that is, about sex, and wanting it badly). Equally as problematic, there is an implication that living in the closet is a "dark secret". If our comatose protagonist really thinks so, this should be explored and drawn out into the kind of real conflict that Gilna denies his characters. The text is crawling with possibilities for drama and tension; not one is delivered fully. The characters are left holding strings of storyline that Gilna fails to tie together.
Actually, he does attempt to do so. He writes his protagonist's supposed character arc into the final soliloquy itself. The problem is that the audience had not seen this arc unfold. We had been left to navigate a jagged line, and to jump across the gaps between significant points. So if the protagonist tells us that these events have changed his life, well, we'll have to take his word for it.
No doubt many playgoers will find Gift of Lightning funny, but that has to be down to the actors (one of whom is Gilna), whose various caricatured accents are spot on. They have also mastered the kind of physical comedy that the play requires. But these features cannot, unfortunately, save this disappointing play.
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