Danny Tango
Poster photo, courtesy of Maryann Maguire

The early stages of Eileen McCloskey's Danny Tango, along with the eighties songs that fill the air of Belfast's Sanctuary Theatre before the play even begins, suggest that the writer, director and co-star of this concise and appealing piece of work is looking to play on nostalgia for the audience. But we're in for a surprise. Because the Belfast that McCloskey's character, Isobel, reflects upon within the play is neither colourful nor rose-tinted. Instead, it is both active and exhausting, equally restless and weary, and invested with the sort of tiredness that can only arise from adapting and keeping up with the detailed and demanding evolution that the realities of city life bring with them.

Along with her co-stars Donna Kernan, Richard McFerran and Maryann Maguire, McCloskey has fashioned something dynamic and entertaining, and also admirably thorough – its exploration of youthful memories tainted by pride and loss is endearing and enduring. Danny Tango is indeed about a "Danny" and a "tango", but in more ways than the viewer may initially imagine, for when one contemplates McCloskey's piece after just over an hour of appreciatively involving on-stage antics and familiar family stories, they might just find that what lingers longest is McCloskey's skilful depiction of gradual loss – as a pathway to the eventual absence, or near-absence, of an initially strong emotional connection to a person, place and thing that may once have been one's here, one's now and one's everything. Think of a situation where the sense of welcome that used to appear ever present in public places, city streets and living rooms has entirely vanished, along with the camaraderie of someone who hasn't spoken to you in years, and you'll get an idea of the poignant emptiness at the heart of the project – an emptiness nonetheless excitingly tempered by the energy in the plot, acting and choices of music.

Music, and dancing, are the kind of things that took both Isobel and her best friend Ann away from the Troubles in early 1980s Belfast, and played a part in initiating a new kind of trouble when the title character came between them. Two decades later and Danny (McFerran) is back to cause more friction between Isobel, Ann (Kernan) and Isobel's daughter Sarah (Maguire) – the pleasure, and pain, is in observing what arises before our eyes. We discover that isn't simply about two friends battling for the affection and attention of their "dream partner" as the effects of what both might see in him – strength, security and the allure of both purpose and significance, before time and energy levels catch up with them. It's a narrative filled with potential, and it's potential which is realised quite remarkably.

The decision to punctuate the action and the intervals with iconic eighties tuneage is inspired – one can't help but be compelled to ask questions about the true appeal of "looking back" and why there simply doesn't seem to be as much to look back to at the turn of the century, which is, incidentally, the later time period of the play. Perhaps even more inspired, and key to Danny Tango's success, is a second act shift from character-building set pieces to prominent plot, where two smartly incorporated twists send context into chaos, then calm, then a state of shock. It takes two to "tango", after all – and by integrating these duelling structures in this particular manner, McCloskey has crafted a fine piece of entertainment and an intriguing think piece which revolves both around memories and those who create them.

Simon Fallaha

Danny Tango's current run concludes on Saturday March 2 at Belfast's Sanctuary Theatre.