It might ruffle some feathers, but Marie Jones' latest production doesn't impress Fionola Meredith
Belfast audiences love Marie Jones plays.
The reaction to Rock Doves, her latest offering – a family affair, featuring her son Matthew McElhinney, and directed by her husband Ian McElhinney – shows that nothing has changed. The crowd knew what to expect and they got it, roaring with laughter at the slapstick, bawdy exchanges between Knacker (Adrian Dunbar), a smelly alcoholic tramp, prone to bouts of maudlin whimsy, and The Boy (Matthew McElhinney), a chippy teenage yob, full of noisy bravado and pathetic swagger.
The Boy remains un-named throughout, perhaps in an attempt to universalise him as a type, the generic mouthy but vulnerable baseball-capped youth. But cartoonish as The Boy is, with all his ‘focken this’ and ‘focken that’, he’s far from the most blatant stereotype in Rock Doves.
That dubious honour belongs to Lillian (Ian Beattie), a transvestite Tina Turner tribute act, brother of Knacker’s only friend, the stoical but degenerate Bella (Carol Moore).
Despite acknowledgements on the programme to the Belfast Butterfly Club – the support network for transgendered people and their families - Lillian is played almost entirely as an absurd joke. And once more the hoots of hilarity rang out.
All right, there’s the odd moment of ‘he is what he is, don’t knock him’ from Bella and Knacker, but the rest of the time we’re in pure May McFettridge territory, tittering at a bloke in a dress. Trannies, eh? Always guaranteed to get a laugh in Northern Ireland. Just get a burly looking man into a Tina Turner wig and a shiny gown and you’re sorted.
The entire action takes place in Knacker’s seedy squat in a condemned building on a loyalist housing estate. Knacker is defiantly cleanliness-averse ('I’ve wasted too many years washing and washing and washing'), and the set itself is suitably grim with boarded-up windows through which the orange lights of streetlights seeps; nasty yellow stained walls.
Here, the puzzled (and perennially sozzled) tramp finds himself playing host to The Boy, who’s on the run from the paramilitary overlords of the area. This may be post-Troubles Belfast, but it’s made clear the paramilitaries still hold their communities in a twisted grip, through drugs, prostitution, protectionism and general intimidation.
As youths pelt his windows with missiles and yell taunts, Knacker – jaded beyond measure at the endless repetition of mindless violence he’s witnessed over the years – tells The Boy that 'them scumbags are the sons of scumbags you say are protecting me'.
It’s a sharp line, a moment of caustic insight. Before long, though, Knacker is back in a world of his own, wittering on about the imaginary re-runs of Ironside and Quatermass and the Pit that he watches on his plugless television. (Cue lots more laughs from the audience, even when the plug-free telly joke is repeated ad nauseam.)
All the same, Adrian Dunbar, as Knacker, saves this play, just by force of character alone. His big, rangy body seems to take up the whole stage, whether he’s marching around military-style, mocking The Boy’s hard-man pretensions or throwing himself on his mattress weeping in a fit of alcohol-saturated misery. As the plot grinds inexorably towards The Boy’s ultimate fate – all the slapstick and crude knockabout comedy forgotten – Dunbar’s skill stops Rock Doves from slipping into outright melodrama. Just.
Nonetheless, Marie Jones’ tried and tested formula works its magic once again on the audience, which almost unanimously rise to its feet in a standing ovation. She certainly knows how to feed the populist appetite. And it seems churlish not to join in. But I was left longing for something a little less predictable, a little more piquant.
Rock Doves will be playing at The Belfast Waterfront until May 1, 2010.