Venue: Lyric Theatre, Belfast
Dates: 9 to 27 May
Writer: Pearse Elliott
Producer: Rawlife Theatre Company
Peace ostensibly broke out in Northern Ireland in 1998 with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Since then, the place has been slowly working its way towards some kind of normality. Writer Pearse Elliott knows plenty about what passes for normality in communities damaged by long periods of conflict and neglect and translates that awareness into this uncompromising, potentially intriguing play.
His work for stage and screen has, over the years, been a vivid barometer of political and social change in the area of Belfast in which he was born and raised. It is brave, acutely observed, threaded with characteristic black humour and unafraid to tackle head-on pressing, risky issues.
This time around, his gaze comes to rest on the new urban paymasters and the changing world in which they ply their dubious trades. The idle hands of former paramilitaries are now put to a variety of uses, from constitutional politics, activism and peace building to racketeering and protectionism.
Self-styled ex-freedom fighter Duff (Marty Maguire) makes a lucrative living out of protecting his community from the drug dealers. He flags it up as the provision of an altruistic service to his people, while, in fact, it is merely a channel for his egotistical, vain, sexually exploitative, racist, psychopathic tendencies.
Embracing the new multi-cultural reality of Belfast life, he takes in as a glorified slave the compliant Azir, played with great sensitivity by Mark Asante, whom he nicknames Bin Laden. This refugee from a far-off war has witnessed his wife and daughters blown to smithereens and his small son lost off a creaky dinghy laden with desperate people.
Marty Maguire’s crude, strutting Duff cuts a shameful contrast beside the dignity of a man who is pathetically grateful for the chance of a new life, albeit one in this queasy environment. While Azir is given lyrical opportunity to tell his story, some exploration of the background and psyche of the terrifying Duff would be welcomed.
His swaggering sidekick Cricky is played with real heart by Gerard Jordan Quinn though, again, little is revealed about his personal motivation. He fantasises about offing the criminals who threaten their supremacy before falling under the influence of the cultured Azir, who has survived far worse than the rancid regime operated by these small-time hoods.
Bernadette Brown and Paddy Jenkins work hard to lend genuine credibility to, respectively, the sexy, unhappy Lala and the wealthy dealer Tony ‘Herbal’ Molloy, who spends his entire time on stage permanently and brutally restrained.
And therein lies the rub. The play’s content boldly takes on a dangerous current issue and brims over with possibility. As it stands, however, its expletive-overloaded dialogue, its two-dimensional characters, broad humour and swiftly resolved plotlines give director Martin McSharry and the quality cast little of weighty dramatic substance to work with.
The cast is required to lug around props and furniture the during the scene changes, where a split staging may have worked more effectively. And the design plan does not quite capture the contrast between the tacky bling of Duff’s apartment and the dingy drinking den where Lala is surely the only customer who drinks margaritas.
Elliott is an influential and accomplished writer, who has taken the first steps into a play with an important, urgent message about an under-examined segment of contemporary society’s underbelly. He should be strongly encouraged to revisit the script and give it the time and space in which to grow and deliver its full potential.
A shorter version of this review was published by The Stage on 15 May 2018.