Brutal Belfast banter is inextricably bound to the equally brutal landscape that shapes Basra Boy, a journey into the red brick streets of east Belfast, home to Speedy and his side-kick Stig.
Playwright Rosemary Jenkinson envisions a world of fisty-cuffs, drugs and flute-playing in this 80 minute one-man-show for Brassneck Theatre Company, directed by Tony Devlin.
It is a visually engaging, energised and dynamic trip through Speedy’s shenanigans, with the mantra of ‘Through the streets I go’ providing a suitably militaristic motif.
Basra Boy is firmly rooted in all things Norn Iron, yet somehow it strikes a fresh note. A classic coming of age story, Jenkinson's tale of directionless youth is told with empathy.
Speedy perpetrates his own bad luck in a restless search for instant gratification by snorting drugs and forging fights. He is a victim of a vicious cycle – he can't do right for doing wrong. Even his attempts at redemption are in vain.
Far from denouncing the marching band tradition that characterises Speedy’s sense of identity, Jenkinson offers the East Sons of Ulster flute band as the only positive structure and influence on her protagonist's life.
Speedy’s mantra, ‘Can’t let the boys down’, speaks to that militaristic sense of duty and respect, providing order in the disorder, continuity in the chaos. Even his mockery and imitation of the buffoonish, Boris Johnsonesque Marshall is laden with a certain esteem.
The east Belfast vernacular (‘Off I goes’) allows the action to be present, visceral and full of light relief, as Speedy enacts the compromising positions of his ‘ma’ and her man of the moment, Fat Raymond. John Travers navigates a web of characters and manages to convey each one with clarity.
Where his real power lies, however, is not only in his considerable chameleonic capacities, but in his vulnerability and likeability; to elicit empathy for such a flawed character is remarkable.
‘You’re nathin’ but a waster’ rings in his ears as Stig joins the British army in a bid to find a structure and a sense of direction, prompting a personal reassessment by Speedy of his own life. Off comes the zip-up and on goes ‘the suit’ as Speedy lands himself a job in the dole office.
Ironically, in doing so, he leaves behind those flutes and rhythms that once gave solace, purpose and a sense of place and pride. Speedy’s moralistic moments sometimes jar, but Jenkinson does not seek to pass comment, rather to expose a slice of real, working-class life.
Brassneck – as the name might suggest – don’t shy away from socially and politically provocative work, and Basra Boy continues that tradition.
Basra Boy shows tonight, Thursday, September 6, at The Welders as part of the East Belfast Arts Festival.