The Christening

Familiar territory is explored in Pearse Elliott's tale of weathered men in weathered pubs

A man props up a bar and watches the world go by through the bottom of his glass. A career cynic, he yearns for the good old bad old days, when the world was black and white.

His brother has long since fled the scene and leapt across the class divide to grab himself a degree, a profession and the chance of a future. Fast forward several years, and a family event forces the return of the prodigal son.

Cue recriminations, reconciliations and curtain. So far, so familiar. We’ve visited this bar many times in the past...

Playwright and screenwriter Pearse Elliott attempts to turns expectations on their head with The Christening – a Rawlife production, performed in the Grand Opera House as part of Féile an Phobail 2011.

He brings well-groomed, softly spoken Eoin (Paul Kennedy) home not (as is so often the case) for the funeral of his father, but instead for the christening of brother Liam’s first son.

There are faint echoes of Martin McDonagh’s Leenane trilogy here, in the subversion of a cliché Irish setting and thick black comedy. But while McDonagh pushes his characters from traditional set-ups into surreal situations, Elliott doesn’t quite do enough to move his drama onto new ground.

The best he can do is the running gag that the pub (brilliantly designed by Niall Rea) is to be turned into a gay bar – as though this is the most controversial thing that could happen. Or maybe it is?

If Elliott’s comedy takes us down a familiar road, at least he livens the journey with his sparky, X-rated script, which sees Jim Doran in magnificent form as the embittered ex-Provo Paddy, whose bar-stool bravado is a marked contrast to his real life as a loser.

Paddy and Eoin dance around each other for much of the play, landing a few jabs but rarely leaving a mark. The sparring between past and present is refereed by youngest brother Liam (Ciaran Nolan, whose comic timing adds much to the success of the show).

As the play moves towards its inevitable showdown, we pause to pay tribute to Ivan Little’s Sambo, the boozer at the end of the bar who sleeps through most of the action, raising his shaggy head to demand another drink, or recall another atrocity he carried out for The Cause.

If the plot and characters of The Christening are much as expected, the jokes certainly are not. The well-observed west Belfast patois is frequently filthy and largely witty, but occasionally strays into ill-judged crudeness.

The play’s several set pieces work well and the drama is at its best when the plot moves away from Troubles territory into more universal ground. Elliott has already won his spurs as a comic writer, and Martin McSharry’s pacy direction, along with excellent performances from the cast, keep the action and the laughs coming.

However, while the production itself exceeds expectations, the narrative fails to surprise: the trite pay-off takes us back once more to the killing fields. And there’s nothing subversive about that.

The Christening runs in the Grand Opera House until August 13.