A Better Boy

John Wilson-Foster's play about Lord Pirrie and Titanic is 'as much a eulogy to industry' as anything

‘We don't want the memory of that calamity!’ declares William J Pirrie in Kabosh Theatre Company's site specific production of John Wilson-Foster's one-man play, A Better Boy. It is a poignant moment for the audience on the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.

‘That calamity’ is, of course, the very reason we are gathered in the hold of a barge on the River Lagan on April 14, 2012 for a monologue delivered by Lord Pirrie (played by Belfast actor Lalor Roddy in fine period garb), the shipbuilder who was Chairman of Harland & Wolff in 1912.

A Better Boy is a newly-commissioned work for the Titanic Festival of the Creative Arts, which also featured a requiem by composer Philip Hammond performed in St Anne's Cathedral and St Peter's Cathedral on the Falls Road, amongst other things. Titanic expert and writer Wilson-Foster is former Professor of English at the University of British Columbia.

The unique venue for the play is the Belfast Barge, which is now permanently moored behind the Waterfront Hall at Lanyon Quay. The restored barge, MV Confiance, is owned and operated by the Lagan Legacy charity.

It’s 1917 and Lord Pirrie has agreed to do an interview about his nephew, Thomas Andrews, the naval architect who designed Titanic and who perished when she sank. With the Great War raging, the interview takes place just before Lord Pirrie is called upon to take wartime control of British merchant shipping.

The drama is set in the smoking room of Lord Pirries’s Witley Park mansion in Surrey. Above his head is a glass dome: this room is located under the water of a lake. The irony does not go unnoticed by the audience.

In the course of the interview, Lord Pirrie recalls Thomas Andrew’s boyhood, the beginning of his career as an apprentice aged 16 at Harland & Wolff, and his marriage to Helen Reilly Barbour. He remembers his nephew’s love of hard work, his zeal for shipbuilding and his last moments aboard the stricken liner. In contrast to his views on the loss of the great ship, Lord Pirrie says ‘memories of Tommy are roses indeed’.

Lalor Roddy as Lord Pirrie

However, as the proud uncle reflects on the life of Andrews, his musings reveal much more about the character of Pirrie himself. What he admires most in Andrews are the values he shares. ‘A virtuoso in the doing part of life was Tommy,’ he says.

The interview becomes a passionate argument for industry and the intrinsic value of hard work. Pirrie is proud of the hardworking men of the shipyard and the achievements of Harland & Wolff after the loss of the Titanic. He proclaims defiantly, ‘We didn't sink, we swam!’

His monologue is as much a eulogy to industry as it is to his nephew. He tells a story of boasting to the novelist Bram Stoker about the interdependency and efficiency of the workers in the Belfast shipyard. Pirrie describes himself as a 'self-made man' and Belfast as a self-made city.

He expresses his desire to see Ulster as 'an engine, oiled, smoothly working' and his view of the current Great War is a pragmatic one: 'While we stay productive and hardworking we’ll pull through'.

Roddy’s performance as one of Ireland’s most successful and decorated business people is both engaging and convincing. Only the integration of the script on stage creates the occasional distraction during the performance. Roddy blends the passion and conviction of a charismatic industrialist with the affection and love of a grieving uncle.

‘I hope he felt no shame about the ship,’ says Pirrie as he reflects on Andrew’s final hours on the Titanic.
He recalls the words of tribute in a letter to the family at the time of Andrew’s funeral. ‘There is not a better boy in heaven,’ it said.

When A Better Boy draws to a close we disembark from the Belfast Barge, close to where the Titanic was constructed and launched. The audience leaves the quayside with a new and vivid sense of the passion and conviction that drove William J Pirrie, Thomas Andrews and their colleagues to build so many ships of the scale and ambition of the Titanic.