Man in the Moon

Pearse Elliott's play set in west Belfast features a bravura performance from Ciaran Nolan as a man plagued by suicide

Sean Doran slopes onto the stage of The Baby Grand in the Grand Opera House, Belfast in a Rodney Trotter suit. An unbranded plastic bag hangs limply from his fingers, his carry out. He slumps onto a park bench, shoulders forward, his head lolling, and behind him, looming over a stylised Belfast skyline, is a huge, pregnant moon.

Before him lie the waters of Half Moon Lake, murmuring like a nervous audience. He looks broken – a man haunted by memory, by the ghosts of the past. But when he stands and he starts to speak, he is relentless. And he is funny.

This is a relief. A lot of comedy in Belfast gets by on a peculiar sense of recognition from the audience, as though the notion of hearing local idiomatic language and inflection is in itself inherently funny, inherently worthwhile. A lot of lazy and glib materiel is propped up by pantomimic performances.

Nothing wrong with panto, but it should be a seasonal beast, hardly perennial. Pearse Elliot’s writing is peppered with winnets of slang, of course, but there is method here. And poise. The tone twists and turns like the legendary salmon found in the regenerated Half Moon Lake. 'You should be able to regenerate minds,' Doran reflects sadly.

Man in the Moon tells the story of Sean Doran, played with extraordinary brio by Ciaran Nolan. Doran is a recently fired call centre worker, whose access to his daughter is petering out and who has moved back in with his mother in west Belfast’s Lenadoon Housing Estate, from which he fears he may never escape.

To come to the lake is to be confronted by memories of the characters he knew growing up, and to face up to the fact that so many of them are dead having committed suicide.

Doran's recollections of past antics with characters like Soupy Campbell and Gabe the Stunt Man are presented as vignettes; the woolly tales of a barroom gobshite. With many of them (Soupy’s specifically), you can see the punch line coming long before it arrives, but in the tradition of a shaggy dog story the ride is far more interesting and enjoyable than the ultimate destination.

The spine of the show, however, is a sober reflection on why so many of Doran’s contemporaries felt they had no option but to take their own lives, and the narrative constantly swoops from pitched hysterics to a bathetic melancholy, as we wonder why the jobless Doran has come to stand by the water’s edge in his best suit.

In less capable hands these tonal peaks and troughs would prove hard to navigate, but the part was written for Ciaran Nolan and it shows. He utterly inhabits the role, lending it a gawky physicality, impressive comic chops and flashes of vulnerability, as he attempts to piece together why so many friends and family are no longer there, and whether he is doomed to join them.

It’s an extraordinarily committed performance. Nolan covers the stage like a roll of lino – protean, leaping from character to character as Doran relates his tales, from a lazy Belfast lion, scratching and yawning, to a would-be suicide losing a bet, or an S&M pensioner picked up from Plenty of Fish.com.

Nolan and Elliot have worked before on Pulling Moves and Man about a Dog, but this feels almost seamless – the language so apt to Nolan’s performance, the actor so in tune to the rhythms of Elliot’s text.

If there are problems with the play they seem almost cosmetic. While the sound cues are always spot-on, there are rather too many of them. In a sequence where Sean and his brother Liam blag their way into a film premiere and are papped on the red carpet outside Edinburgh Castle, I’m not sure its necessary to have the sound of photographers snapping away in the background – we believe the story, we don’t need the prop.

There is rather too much music generally, including the titular R.E.M. song, and on a couple of occasions one strains to hear the dialogue over it. But really these are wrinkles for director Tony Devlin to iron out. Man in the Moon is funny, fast-paced and unexpectedly poignant, and Ciaran Nolan tears through it with wiry intensity and comic joie de vivre.

Man in the Moon tours Northern Ireland. Visit the Brassneck Theatre Company website for full listings.