White Star of the North

The Ulster Covenant, Home Rule and heliotherapy, but only a brief mention of an iceberg. The play is all the better for it

There are no icebergs in this play. One is briefly mentioned, but nine tenths of this witty and poignant piece of theatre has nothing to do with the hubris splinterer that sunk the ship of dreams. It is the big white elephant in the room, and the play is all the better for it.

Middle-class Belfast family, the Masseys, are caught up in a climate of religious discrimination and Home Rule in Ireland. After finding his son’s gun, benignly patriarchal Robert Massey (Ruairi Conaghan) decides to pack him and his sister off to America, land of infinite opportunity and religious freedom. Unfortunately the ship they set sail on is the Titanic.

I entered the theatre with some trepidation, the shade of Celine Dion still hurling octaves at me down through the years. (Indeed there is a 'bit of business' with a locket – surely a reference to the movie! At the centenary can we be knowing and self-referential about the Titanic? Is it, finally, no longer 'too soon'?) The stage is a burnished wooden horse-shoe, set against an elegant back-drop of dappled clouds. To the left is a bookshelf set in an iron girder. To the right a cotton sheet hangs from the floor to the ceiling.

This is swept away almost immediately by Robert Massey. He is a doctor, quietly obsessed with curing his sickly daughter, either by new ideas, his 'heliotherapy', or by dosing her with laudanum. This typifies him – he is a progressive idealist shackled to the past. For all his modish Jungian interpretation of dreams, he still reaches for the 'tincture' every time Evelyn becomes upset. Later in the play he is disgusted to discover that his brother is a quack doctor in America. From our viewpoint it is difficult to distinguish between the two.

Roisin Gallagher is funny and affecting as Evelyn, in a part that could have easily been an undernourished Ophelia, haunted by seagulls and a cold numbing sea. Kerr Logan’s two-hander as the roguish Frank Buckley and the waspish Reverend Ferguson is a performance of both style and substance. The odd expositional exchange he is given, however – 'I’ve been talking to a steward, he says we’ve hit an iceberg…' – clunked like ice in a whiskey glass. His subsequent persecution of Crawford Massey (Andrew Simpson) also seemed somewhat out of character. This is, after all, a man, who, on arrival at Ellis Island would surely have his name changed to Buck Eejit.

Michael Liebmann is both comic and terrifying as the brutal sergeant and the lisping high court judge. He relishes the latter’s lip-smacking, Bond villainesque dialogue. His parting shot – 'And now I’m off to enjoy an excellent lunch.' – is savoured like a vintage port.

The writing shines in this play. It is, considering its subject matter, extremely funny throughout. Ruairi Conaghan’s Robert is the recipient of the spangliest bon mots, and he delivers them with acuity and brio. His is the pivotal performance in the piece and covers the most dramatic distance, from familial joshing to an emotional outcry at the signing of the Ulster Covenant. It is perhaps typical of this most atypical Titanic play that the central role is that of a man who never set sail.

There are some technical gear-changes that grind towards the end of the play but that is forgivable as the story races pell-mell towards its conclusion, spitting out wit like sparks. It will be interesting to see what art will survive once the dust settles on this Titanic year, but I have a fond feeling that Rosemary Jenkinson’s play, like Celine Dion’s heart, will go on.

White Star of the North is at the Lyric Theatre until April 14. For more details go to CultureNorthernIreland's What's On guide.