Henry & Harriet
Kabosh take David Lewis on a madcap dash around Titanic Town
‘Shop til you drop’ is a phrase that strikes fear into the hearts of most men, so it’s a wonder that the audience of Carlo Gébler’s latest play, which takes place in a fair few city centre emporia, contains so many willing fellas.
The date is 2nd April 1912 and Henry Surphlis is a shopper on a mission. He’s just bought two tickets for the Titanic, which is leaving Belfast for Southampton and then New York that very night. We follow him on a mad dash around the Cathedral Quarter as he buys the last things he needs before (fingers crossed) eloping with his belle Harriet Sweetlove.
Our evening's promenade begins outside the Northern Whig, where we’re given a luggage label to hang around our necks to make sure we don’t get lost.
The action takes place in real time, our first stop in Whiting & Tedworth Shipping Agents on Donegall Street. Old White Star Line memorabilia sits alongside modern USA holiday brochures and a poster of Manhattan’s skyscrapers.
As the oversubscribed lottery for green cards each year testifies, the dream/mirage of a new life in the New World holds to this day. Although Henry’s reason for going – the fact that Harriet won’t put out until she crosses the Atlantic – is rather more of its time.
As if Henry’s love life isn’t enough to worry about, an unfortunate truism of this part of the world is that a political crisis is never far from the personal. Home Rule is on the political agenda and Henry, who has been collecting funds for the anti-Home Rule Ulster Unionist Council, is being pursued by loyalist heavy Leonard Louden.
From a leather goods shop on North Street we head past Rosemary Street First Presbyterian Church, where Titanic designer Thomas Andrews worshipped, into a Gentlemen’s Outfitters next to Belfast’s favourite Ladies’ Outfitters (AKA Ann Summers).
Here the owner, Cobb, turns out to be a Queen Victoria-fixated UUC man, advising Henry that he’s making the biggest mistake of his life and loyalty to Ulster is bred in his bones. Like many before and since, Henry is unconvinced by the bigotry.
Joe Rea’s performance, as Henry, is big and bolshy, one minute leaping up on street furniture, the next counting old pound notes into the hand of one of the audience, all the while spinning tall tales. As Cobb observes: ‘You’re good with words, aren’t you?’
But like all NI men, Henry turns out to be something of a mammy’s boy, jeopardising his plans by sending a parting gift home from Maggie Boyd’s Fancy Goods Emporium.
The final scenes of Kabosh’s imaginative production are played out in the Cash Converter on High Street, which has no doubt seen a few dramas concerning filthy lucre over the years. The china and chintz of the Fancy Goods Store sit surprisingly well with piles of £35 DVD players and adverts for ‘Logbook Loans’.
Here we finally meet Harriet, a natural putter-up-with-things, along with the vision of loyalist loveliness – three-piece suit, slicked-back hair, sideburns and tache – that is Leonard Louden, a menacing James Doran.
Jo Donnelly as Harriet is a little underwhelming but her good-hearted country girl contrasts nicely with her gobby beau.
The Titanic constantly looms in the background. The fact that the audience know that Henry’s exertions, if successful, will merely lead him to a watery grave, give the play a mordant edge. The laughter when Henry explores the degrees of waterproofness of various suitcases perhaps rings a little hollow. And I couldn’t help but it would be better for Henry to take a bullet now than go transatlantic.
Henry & Harriet is a delicious entertainment – part thriller, part guided tour, part history lesson – and sure beats the weary realities of a day out shopping.