Venue: The MAC, Belfast
30 March to 20 April 2019
Writer: John Godber
Producers: Big Telly & The MAC
There’s more to Bouncers than immediately meets the eye. It’s far from a laugh a minute. Over four decades, its raucous humour and on-the-nail observations of a dirty, drunken night on the town have made it an enduring choice for theatre companies up and down the land.
Zoë Seaton has previous form with the distinguished English playwright John Godber, having directed for his Hull Truck company and bringing several of his plays across the Irish Sea for Big Telly, the Portstewart-based company of which she is co-founder and artistic director.
Her instinctive familiarity with text and subtext shines out of this effective transposition from the north of England to Belfast. In casting four popular Northern Ireland actors as Judd (Conor Grimes), Lucky Eric (Martin Maguire), Les (Ciaran Nolan) and Ralph (Chris Robinson), instant audience adoration is guaranteed.
Their respective appearances play cleverly into Godber’s quick-fire physical comedy style, working a treat as a quartet of mincing, tiddly young women, a variety of desperate, sexually voracious male punters and the cold eyed, tuxedo-clad doormen, who control this rampant pantomime, night after night.
When the guys head home in the wee small hours, it’s not to a hot supper and a warm marital bed. Single and sober, they often share a taxi to the same house, relying on a Chinese take-away, a bottle of booze and a porn video to help them wind down. The no-holds-barred banter between them is outrageously funny but sad and bitter, too. They laugh a lot, but the laughter is only skin deep. Their idea of a good joke is crude and sexist and unashamedly laddish but that’s the point. The despairing humour becomes the butt of its own joke.
Judd has history with the ironically named Lucky Eric, whose melancholy recollections of a disastrous marriage frame the narrative. Ralph and Les have their own personal problems too. These overblown, pin-sharp portrayals of ordinary people down on their luck are the keystones of Godber’s evergreen brand of bittersweet comedy.
For the occasion, the MAC’s big Downstairs space has been transformed into a stylish nightclub venue, several cuts above the grimy, sweaty, urine-scented pleasure dome where this motley assortment of revellers gather to blow their weekly wages.
In Seaton’s technically slick, faultlessly executed presentation, Godber’s queasy narrative, beady social comment and dark asides are awash with nostalgia, rotating at speed through the tunnel-like perspectives of Ciaran Bagnall’s neon lit set and Garth McConaghie’s pounding ‘80s disco soundtrack.
After all these years, the play should feel dated but look around any city at any weekend and there they are, the worse for wear, the late-night dramatis personae of Bouncers.
A shorter version of this review was first published in The Stage on 3 April 2019.