Venue: Lyric Theatre, Belfast
Producer: c21 Theatre Company
Writer: Rosemary Jenkinson
Performer: Christine Clare
One of the most tangible proofs of the devastating effects of government austerity measures and the continuing fall-out from the economic recession is the rise in the level of homelessness on our streets. What is especially striking is the fact that so many of the desperate individuals camped in doorways and on waste ground are young people, who find themselves in this impasse for a variety of reasons – mental and/or physical health issues, drug and/or alcohol dependency, debt, fractured family life, relationship breakdown … and a myriad combinations of the above.
We live in a cruel, uncaring world. Redundancy looms in all sectors. A couple of missed rent or mortgage payments and there could any of us be.
Following her dramatic highlighting of the plight of asylum seekers in Lives in Translation, Rosemary Jenkinson has taken another pressing social issue and brought it into the theatrical arena.
The title here takes on a certain cold irony, not in the form of the lyrical Irish Blessing, ending with the wish that God would hold you in the palm of His hand, but, rather, the same road rising up to give the central character Mia a hard slap in the face.
Jenkinson draws on her own past experience of severe back problems, which, though agonising, were deemed insufficiently debilitating to render the required number of points for ESA (Employment and Support Allowance). Armed with that memory, her anger is double-edged and directed as much at the speed with which Mia is whisked from employment to eviction as at the brutal system which will not come to her aid.
As is all too common in real life, in the blink of an eye and the pull of a back muscle, Mia goes from being a fully employed, fully paid-up member of society to drowning in debt, being dumped by her boyfriend and partying herself into oblivion. As the bills pile up, the spectre of financial ruin looms ever closer before descending upon her with full force.
As usual, Jenkinson writes at speed, in a headlong torrent of street-speak and Belfast vernacular, always focusing on the human angle. In response, Christine Clare delivers a sparky, energetic performance, which can occasionally feel a little stranded in a production requiring a few simple tweaks to enhance its atmosphere and attack.
Director Stephen Kelly and the creative team compensate for the usual budgetary constraints with enterprising use of video backdrop, punchy soundtrack and a set comprised entirely of large cardboard boxes, which start out as a solid, secure wall but gradually distintegrate into chaos as Mia’s life falls apart.
On opening night, one felt a need for those production elements to change up a gear. The jaunty dash cam and party footage lights up the opening scenes only for the same device to diminish as the story unfolds. If turned up to the max, the pounding soundtrack has the potential to echo the white noise building in Mia’s brain and body. The boxes might more tellingly register as heavy and burdensome as the strain of life and lifting them builds.
Clare’s jokey, wise-cracking characterisation contains plenty of light and shade but is most effective when Mia quietly descends to rock bottom, falling prey to threats and dangers on the street yet finding scant compassion during her brief occupancy of a squalid hostel room. Human kindness comes from the direction of her fellow rough sleepers, elderly men who welcome her into their midst and offer her camaraderie and a bottle of booze.
A beam of light glimmers in the darkness of the tunnel as a friendship from the past surfaces, offering Mia an unexpected lifeline. But is she now too far gone to accept it? She calls on society to rise up in protest, to take action against the inflexible, inhumane system that governs our lives. As we walk through our towns and cities, it is incumbent on us all to heed that call.
May the Road Rise Up tours to the Market Place in Armagh, Sean Hollywood Arts Centre in Newry, Strand Arts Centre in east Belfast, Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey, Island Arts Centre in Lisburn, Alley Theatre in Strabane, Down Arts Centre in Downpatrick.