A thrilling new Northern Irish voice emerges on the London scene
‘Shopper’s drift above, holdin' hands, delirious. Husbands tugged by wives with fierce to-do lists give in to posters of men in cardigans, dangerous and fresh from London, where all the men wear cardigans… a new Belfast, aye.’
There was frequent use of the term ‘game-changer’ in Belfast these last few weeks, referring, of course, to the visitation of planet MTV. The appearance of Bruno Mars, Justin Bieber and Coldplay in our very own streets, with not even a whisper of a bomb scare, occasioned much discussion of how this small city had changed.
During the run up to last weekend's jamboree, a small theatre in south London premiered Lagan, a play by Stacey Gregg, a woman from a generation who don’t remember the times when the best we could do in Belfast was go to see Philomena Begley at the Greenan Lodge. And never on a Sunday.
Written in a striking mix of the vernacular and the poetic, Lagan draws out ten lives in the city of Belfast, and is an extraordinary exploration of what the city is now, and what it might become.
Played by four actors – Kathy Keira Clarke, Pauline Hutton, Alan Turkington and Sean Rea – each character is connected, creating a microcosm of Belfast on the sparse, cramped stage. Ian Boal, a hilariously pretentious 20-something returns home on a ferry, an act of rebellion in these Easyjet days, summoned by his mother, Anne.
Aoife, the youngest daughter, is pregnant, and Ian is being cast as the role of saviour of the family. Ian’s sexuality (he lives with Stefan back in cosmopolitan London) is hidden from his mother, played by Kathy Keira Clarke, one of the most terrifying characters we’ve seen on the stage.
Misogynistic, wilfully blind and obsessed with cleanliness, she will do what it takes to control and fashion the world she lives in, with her children coping as best they can in the face of her mania. Clarke brings Boal hurtling towards us, a bomb with the wires showing, but always with enough hints of realism to give her believability.
Amongst the mania of the Boals is the salt of the earth racist ‘Taximan’, father of Tracey and Phillip, whose confrontations with death are pushed down by his must-keep-working optimism. Joan McKenna and her son Emmett cope with the loss of Ryan, a son and a brother. Added to these are the shadowy, feckless Terry and his yearning daughter, Fiona.
Joan McKenna is movingly played by Pauline Hutton, wide-eyed while ‘having a keek’ at the Victoria Square shopping mall. Joan brings us the shadow of the Troubles on the ‘normal’ life of 2011. She brings the hidden grief, incomprehension and muted joy at this ‘new world’ of those defined by events of the past.
These characters are representative yes, but they aren’t weighed down by their symbolism. Gregg has the ability to imbue each character with three dimensions; they are not merely symbols of any spurious point. As the drama unfolds, Gregg allows each character their own space and time, rejecting the traditional realism of Northern Irish drama to create a narrative drenched in words.
At times this can be too much, with the smaller cast being a little overrun by how much Gregg tries to cram in. But ultimately, Lagan succeeds because of its implicit assertion that cities teem with individual lives, trying to survive, trying to love, trying to cope, all small tributaries flowing into the one big river.
Gregg’s care for her characters, and the actors' sensitivity, create a portrait of a city being pulled back by the past, while rushing forward to the future it can see ahead. Whether we like it when we get there is another matter, but Lagan’s final scene foresees a city out by the river on a sunny day, the characters seemingly at peace with themselves and their place in the world.
Lagan was a co-production between the Oval House and Roots Theatre, who should be congratulated in recognising and providing a platform for the talent of this thrilling new voice from Belfast. Let us hope that our theatre producers bring this play to its home. Belfast needs to see it.