Sunday 22 September 2019

Prisoners of a dramatic form

On Blueberry Hill
On Blueberry Hill

Katy Hayes

Sebastian Barry returns to the stage with this touching and compelling story about forgiveness for Fishamble: The New Play Company.

It is set in a cell in Mountjoy prison. We meet two prisoners whose crimes have grievously wronged each other. PJ, a gay priest, has killed his young lover in an impulsive act and his cell mate, Christy, is the young man's father. Christy is in prison for a murder he committed as an act of revenge. PJ sets the scene describing the events that led to the death of his lover, his own implication in the murder, and the ensuing court case. The story passes then to Christy, as he describes the horror of having his son killed, and the destabilising impact it had on him and his family, as well as the dark turn his life took. The two men have ended up in the same cell and have found their way to an understanding of each other. They listen to Fats Domino on the Ronan Collins show.

The Pavilion Theatre's local Dún Laoghaire audience has the added frisson of the characters coming from the adjacent neighbourhood of Monkstown, a district that is carefully described in the play, with its social divisions and long-established communities. The characters might have just strolled in from Marine Road.

Director Jim Culleton confidently allows the story to unfold without unnecessary fuss; the finesse is all in the acting. Sabine Dargent's design, a pair of sturdy bunk beds surrounded by an installation of hanging blank pages, strikes a metaphoric note. Mark Galione's lighting plot subtly picks out the pages at moments of intensity.

Niall Buggy gives a towering performance as Christy, beautifully modulated and capturing the utter complexity of this wounded man. He traces the joys and triumphs of his ordinary working life, full of memorable detail. David Ganly is a strong ally in the more low-key role of PJ, a man who remains locked inside himself, as well as locked inside the prison cell. His lack of disclosure has a low-key menace to it. Despite all the delicacy in the writing, the savagery underpinning the men's actions is never too far from the surface. Barry writes brilliantly about men. He goes after the sensitivities of the moment, as if his tool is a surgeon's emotional scalpel rather than a pen.

The show runs for 1hr 50mins without an interval. It is a series of inter-cut monologues, with both actors delivering their story directly to the audience. While the storytelling is compelling, it is a missed opportunity that the two men don't ever talk directly to each other, especially since they are together in a cell. The monologue form always feels like a failure of dramatic courage, even when the writing is as first-rate as this.

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