Thursday 19 July 2018

A burning Belfast drama

Frankie McCafferty
Frankie McCafferty

Katy Hayes

Writer Owen McCafferty takes us to a back garden deck on a balmy summer evening in suburban Belfast. Gerry (Frankie McCafferty, pictured) and Rosemary (Cara Kelly) are a Catholic couple who have lived their well-to-do life in a comfortable house on an elevated site. They are middle-class and middle-aged. It has been 20 years since the start of the peace process in the North and, in that time, a housing estate has been built in the field below their home. The housing estate was supposed to be mixed Catholic and Protestant, but there were objections, and it has become an exclusively Protestant enclave, complete with loyalist bonfires on the eve of the 12th of July.

Gerry and Rosemary are joined by Tom (Ruairi Conaghan) and Maggie (Ali White), a Protestant couple from next door. They do this every year, watch the spectacle of the bonfire from their physically elevated perch, a perch which they believe is morally elevated, too. "We're not real Protestants and Catholics, are we?" They consider themselves free of sectarianism, as Protestant Tom learns the Irish language, and Catholic Gerry brings his kids to see Ulster in the rugby. There is a certain amount of Irish spoken, as Rosemary and Tom indulge a bit of flirtation as Gaeilge - they share the language, to the irritation of both spouses. None of the Irish is translated.

The two pairs negotiate their way around Northern Irish politics without much difficulty. There is a certain amount of cultural teasing, but an ominous undercurrent of racism bubbles under their chat. It is when they come to the question of Israel and Palestine that a proxy war breaks out, and the couples' entente cordiale breaks down.

Director Jimmy Fay handles this Lyric/Abbey co-production with great skill. The seriousness of the subject is lifted with tremendous humour and the outbreaks of mom-and-dad dancing are hilarious. The characters put away vast quantities of wine, bottles and bottles of the stuff, though they do not get drunk. Paula McCafferty's physical set is effective, with its summer paper lanterns and deckchairs. But the six onstage screens are not put to good use, and when the bonfire is eventually lit, it turns out to be a dramatic damp squib.

Four terrific performances deliver this real-time conversation piece, which presents a bleak picture full of black Belfast humour. Billed as a companion to Owen McCafferty's last Northern-set play, Quietly, this has a darker, more pessimistic vision. The playwright is (among other things) a chronicler of the peace process, and Fire Below could be read as a distress signal. The peace is thin and can fall apart at any moment. Balmy Belfast nights can get very hot indeed.

BOOK IT NOW

1 THIS EDEN

Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire,  Nov 19

Written by Stephen Jones and directed by Karl Shiels, this 2015 play has toured extensively. It stars Jones himself along with Seána Kerslake as a pair of lost souls who get locked in the bathroom on New Year’s Eve.

2 SUNSET BOULEVARD

Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, Nov 21 — 25

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical is based on Billy Wilder’s classic film: a faded star of the silent screen banks on a young screenwriter to revive her career. Big emotions accompanied by big musical numbers.

3 THE RESTORATION OF HOPE

The New Theatre, Dublin Nov 20 — Dec 16

A new play from interesting emerging playwright Philip St John is a thriller set in a Dublin office a few days before Christmas. Directed by Matthew Ralli, it stars Jody O’Neill, Shane O’Regan and Nick Devlin.

A bright, chilly day at the beach

First produced at the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2016, This Beach by Brokentalkers has been remounted for a national tour.

It centres around a family wedding on a private beach. The people are privileged and bronzed and have lived there for generations. Their ancestors acquired the beach by conquest. The show opens with a dead body washed up on the sand. Decontamination suits are worn to dispose of the body; it is put in a boiler and burnt.

Another body washes up, but this one coughs and splutters. It is a young man, curiously pale and bald and alien. They fear he is a threat and set to finding uses for him, challenging him and turning him into art. The actors play versions of themselves. The cast consists of: Daniel Reardon, a patriarch; his son Bryan Quinn, an army vet who suffers from PTSD; and an army colleague, Anthony Morris. Bryan's bride is an artist performed by Venetia Bowe, whose mother is embodied by Pom Boyd. The newcomer, the pale bald alien, is portrayed by Neimhin Robinson Gunning. He is not named.

Visually it is a real treat, with the design team of Sabine Dargent (set and costume) and Sarah Jane Shiels (lighting) doing a brilliant job. A hot beach is magically conjured and the colours are vibrant and alive. This is accompanied by Jack Cawley's unsettling sound design. The mode of writing and performance is arch detachment, a style that creates barriers between the audience and any emotional engagement or empathy. There are many fine ingredients on the stage: talented actors, great movement and dance, and plenty of originality.

The work also has a strong political and moral vision and writer/director team Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan display a distinctive and committed style. But the intense aesthetic opposition to conventional emotional storytelling creates a dry detachment.

Ultimately, we are left with an arid theatrical experience: intellectually stimulating, but emotionally cold. A chilly experience, though the sunshine is convincing.

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