Shot Glass

Newly established company dedicated to 'pub theatre by new writers' launches with two short plays in the Sunflower Bar

It's hot, packed and sweaty. People are clamorously gesticulating at one another, and there are pints on every table. A pub? Of course it is – the Sunflower Bar, near Belfast's old Smithfield market quarter.

It's not quite business as usual, however, as this particular Wednesday evening the upstairs bar at the Sunflower is also doubling as a theatre, as the newly established Shot Glass Theatre Company makes its debut in a double bill of short plays by local writers.

First on stage, as glasses clink and a couple of barmen hustle busily to meet last-minute orders, is So I Met Someone, a one-hander lasting 30 minutes by John Patrick Higgins, a name which regular readers of this website might easily recognise.

More than a touch of Higgins’ day-job as an arts reviewer finds its way into the script, in the shape of jaundiced journalist Marie, who tours assorted cultural happenings tasked with writing about them for her local paper.

Really, though, she’s interested in men – ‘big men’, to be precise, not weaselly specimens like Gary, whom she somehow hitches up to at one particularly tedious, pretentious gallery opening.

Marie is a kooky specimen with a spicy turn of phrase, who will smile pleasantly at you in public while mentally slicing you to pieces. She’s especially withering about the wimpish, ineffectual Gary, who shakes her hand as though ‘pushing his fist into a wasp’s nest’, and whose variably successful love-making she describes as ‘like a lizard skittering on top of me'.

These are Higgins’ lines, of course, and he consistently shows himself a dab hand with simile and metaphor, clever, striking examples of which drop every line or two.

Actress Mary Lindsay correctly turns the heat down on the verbal virtuosity – her wryly understated take on Marie is highly effective in riffing suggestively on the character’s social schizophrenia, and making merry with her kinky predilections in the sexual department.

Think Maggie Muff with subtlety, a Belfast Bridget Jones, though bawdier, with an ironic Alan Bennett, Talking Heads-style confidentiality, though edgier, and you get where Higgins is going with the character. He should go further – Marie is interesting, and Higgins is a notably skilful and often very funny writer.

There is a brief interval (more clamour, more pint-pulling, more clinking glasses), then we turn our chairs to face the bar for part two of the evening, Joe Nawaz’s 20-minute playlet, Man It Was Mean.

Nawaz is a journo too, but his subject here is men, drinking, infidelity – and then more drinking. One character, Joe – coincidence? I should think not – is already hopelessly inebriated when the audience realises the two guys propping up the bar are actually actors.

His drinking buddy is attempting to perform a mea culpa: he has, unfortunately, committed an act of adultery (several, perhaps) with Joe’s partner, and wants to come clean to him about it.

Joe is not keen on doing truth and reconciliation, however, rejecting all attempts at prostration and penitence, while getting ever more comprehensively intoxicated. His friend, meanwhile, becomes increasingly irritated by Joe’s fuddled refusal to engage in blame-game manoeuvring.

It’s a shrewd scenario, and one that, though mainly comic in its intentions, has serious points to make about the moral implications of unconditional male bonding, and the attitudes to women that can result from it. You could say that Higgins’ quasi-functional Marie is who she is because Nawaz’s emotionally stunted barflies are who they are – the two plays fit together neatly as a combination.

Nawaz’s script is difficult to quote from on a public website. Let us say it mirrors with unflagging accuracy the spectacularly expletive-laden conversations you regularly overhear in Belfast public houses, if you have an ear to listen.

The pacing’s good, and the performances vividly believable. Joe Lindsay’s Joe (that’s three Joes, and counting) slurs, sways and dribbles with method actor believability, while Ruaidhrí Ward – elsewhere a stand up comic of some quality – fields his cronie’s beer-goggled, love-you lunges with practiced dexterity.

A footnote – and it’s about the audience. They are brilliant: attentive, appreciative, and above all mercifully unafflicted by the need to text, surf, chatter, fidget and rustle industrially proportioned grab-bags of confectionery during the performances, as nowadays happens regularly in the city’s more ‘conventional’ theatrical spaces.

The fact that there is also a sold-out roomful of spectators bodes well for the future of drama evenings at the Sunflower, and other venues like it. More ‘shots’ soon, please, is the clear message going out to Belfast’s newest theatre company dedicated to pub theatre by new writers.

Visit the Sunflower Bar website for information on forthcoming events.