Bag for Life

Colin Bateman takes a darker direction with his gripping second play, exploring our inherent inability to let go of the past in the digital age

This week Derry’s two major theatres, the Forum and the Playhouse are both running plays which focus on aspects of contemporary life in Northern Ireland. They couldn’t be more different: a comedy on religious differences in the Forum but a much darker and bleaker play at the Playhouse.

Bag For Life is Colin Bateman’s second play, in effect a monologue by Karen (Julie Addy), a woman who has been mentally and emotionally scarred by the violent death of her older brother in 1993. Michael McAlister – a gunman, from which 'side' of the divide is left unclear – pulled the trigger.

Karen unexpectedly meets McAlister, now released under the Good Friday Agreement, in a Tesco supermarket. Thereafter she stalks him, although unsure of her ultimate intentions towards him; whether simple revenge or something more obscure.

She sets up a fake Facebook account under the name 'Molly Bloom' and flirts with the killer online, unbeknown to both spouses. The plot escalates, a la Fatal Attraction, for those young enough to remember the 'bunny-boiler' scenario.

The actress is jittery from the outset, as a result of her 'meds', the daily dose of diazepam which she has been prescribed to try to help her cope with her inability to forget. Her hyperactive babbling is perhaps the play's only drawback, making it difficult to digest the opening scenes. But we needn't guess the root of her unrest: 'I don’t have a drink problem. I don’t have a drug problem. I have a forgiveness problem,' she tells us.

Bag for Life Team

John Paul Conaghan, actor Julie Addy, stage manager Fiona McLaughlin, director Kieran Griffiths (front), writer Colin Bateman (front), Damian Quigley and Peter E Davidson

In essence, she has that current, and all too familiar Northern Ireland psychosis: the inability to move on from the past. As Karen explains, she is anchored to 'this place', unable to leave or to let go. This is a gripping piece of theatre, well-acted and accompanied by superb and highly innovative graphics on five surrounding screens.

It is quite unlike Bateman's usual writings and screenplays. If you rocked in the aisles – as I did – with Ransom’s production of National Anthem, his first play, don’t expect more of the same. Bag For Life is more reflective and much more pessimistic. There is occasional black humour, as when Karen dubs herself 'Cameron Diazepam', but otherwise there's not much to laugh at.

But this piece is about more than forgiveness and forgetting. It deals too with the problematic, contemporary issue of online – and 'real life' – stalking and how both can destroy families, marriages and lives. There are the secret Facebook log-ins and the compulsive and addictive online messages. Then the denouement, when unsuspecting spouses discover the reality of their partners' extracurricular pastimes on social media.

Director Kieran Griffiths, a stalwart of Playhouse productions, takes Bateman’s text and gives us a play which transcends political ideologies or aspirations, class territories or clan warfare. Addy delivers a tour-de-force in her eighty minute monologue. We can only look forward to seeing her in the next series of The Fall.

To tell more would be to destroy the unexpected ending of Bag for Life. Let’s just say, be careful online and in the supermarket car-park after that weekly shop. And go, see this powerful play too.

Bag for Life by Colin Bateman continues at the Playhouse Theatre, Derry~Londonderry until Saturday, April 9. For more information and ticket booking visit www.derryplayhouse.co.uk.