Basra Boy Brings the Bands to West Belfast

A new play from Rosemary Jenkinson explores the flute band tradition during Feile an Phobail

It has to be said – Feile an Phobail seems like an odd place for a play about an East Belfast Flute band. Yet there it is in the festival programme, Basra Boy at the Roddy McCorley Social Club from August 6 – 9.

Playwright Rosemary Jenkinson, author of White Star of the North which debuted at the Lyric earlier this year, disagrees. She believes that Feile an Phobail is the perfect place for the play. 'Theatre should always be challenging and show people something they don't know. This is a slice of life that people around here might have never seen.'

A one-man play, Basra Boy – which had its world premiere in Washington DC in 2011 – follows 'East Belfast hard lad' Speedy as he drinks, fights and marches his way through life. For the cocky, strutting Speedy, the flute band is the only authority that he respects and he likes it that way. But when his childhood friend and drinking partner Stig decides to enlist in the British Army, Speedy starts to wonder about his own life.

'His whole life revolves around the East Sons of Ulster and his friends. He has no future, no prospects other than what's happening already,' actor John Travers, the one man of the one-man play, says.

Taking a break from trying to sit like a lady for one of the characters (knee on knee, not ankle on knee) Travers explains that this is actually his second time in the role. The first was two years ago when he workshopped it with Jenkinson in Culturlann.

Despite the fact that he's a 'Catholic fellow from North Belfast' who had never seen a band in motion, Travers jumped at the chance to reprise the role. Even though it was, director Tony Devlin interjects dryly, 'for no money'.

The artistic director of Brassneck Theatre, a staple in Feile an Phobail since the company was founded in 2007, Devlin admits that cost is part of the reason they picked Basra Boy to produce this year. With 'no money' and 'no time for Arts Council funding', he thought a one-man play with a minimal set would be economical.

'Then once I looked at Basra Boy, I thought “wow, this is incredible”. It is very funny, with the rhythmic dialogue letting the Belfast black humour out, but has lots of moral issues as well. I couldn't let the play just slip away and maybe end up gathering dust on Rosemary's mantle piece,' he says. 'We are doing this out of pure love and a desire to see Basra Boy on stage.'

Like Jenkinson, Devlin is sure that West Belfast audiences will warm to Basra Boy. The topic might not be one they are familiar with, but the themes of the play are universal. 'It's very much a coming of age story that anyone could identify with,' he says. 'It's about stopping being a teenager and becoming a grown-up, and most of our audience will have done that.'

After the play's run at Roddy McCorley's is over, Brassneck Theatre have been invited to appear at the inaugural East Belfast Festival. Devlin is 'hopeful that the play will go down just as well in nationalist East Belfast as it does in unionist West Belfast'.

He points out that the premise of the play isn't predicated on criticising the flute bands. Instead, the East Sons of Ulster is actually a positive influence in Speedy's life. It is one of the few things he cares about enough that he will moderate his behaviour.

'Can't let the boys down,' Travers-as-Speedy muses in one scene. 'Zip it and zip it.'

Jenkinson agrees that her intent when writing Basra Boy, which was inspired by watching the 2008 Homecoming Parade of the army, wasn't a critical one. Rather she wanted to explore the similar militaristic traditions and how being part of such a close-knit group can become part of your identity.

'There's a phrase I use in the play 'the blood is up' and these bands are very much something you feel in your blood,' Jenkinson explains. ' A lot people don't realise that this tradition can be a beautiful, powerful thing. I have never seen it on stage, and I really wanted to put it there.'

Basra Boy is at the Roddy McCorley Social Club from August 6-9 as part of Feile an Phobail.