Pintsized Productions' Herons
The company dedicated to providing new opportunities for emerging actors adapt Simon Stephen's acclaimed play
'The play deals with damaged characters, yet is imbued with a poetic lyricism.' So wrote The Guardian's distinguished theatre critic Michael Billington of the debut Royal Court production of Simon Stephens's Herons in 2001.
Now Herons is about to receive its Irish premiere thanks to Pintsized Productions, the company set up in 2009 by actors Gerard McCabe and Bronagh Waugh with the aim of offering professional opportunities to emerging local talent.
'You would think that it came directly after the London riots, but in fact it was written long before then,' says McCabe. 'It's a fantastic play. It's hard to believe that it was written that many years ago. It's so fresh and relevant to today's society.'
Pintsized regularly connects and consults with young, aspiring professionals, including drama students, members of the Lyric Drama Studio and other youth drama groups. Stephens's play was brought to the company's attention by Queen's University drama graduate, Stefan McCusker.
A single read-through was all it took for McCabe to make the decision to stage it as the follow-up to Pintsized's last successful show, James McClure's military veterans play Pvt. Wars, which persuaded his old friend, the sought-after stage and screen actor Marty McCann, back to home territory.
'Herons is the perfect choice as our next production,' enthuses McCabe. 'It is totally different from Pvt. Wars but, most importantly, it opens up some really meaty parts to inexperienced young actors, who would normally only be considered for small support roles.
'We are always on the look-out for plays which are accessible and with which young people can identify. There are few enough opportunities [in Northern Ireland] for emerging professionals to showcase their talents and cut their teeth. There's the view that they have to go away, to London or Dublin or across the water. Too many of them are heading away. Pintsized wants to give them good reasons to stay.'
McCabe describes how the company is currently at an important crossroads in its development. Until now, it has been entirely unfunded and operating on a profit-share basis. But he is hopeful that its unique selling point as a showcase for young, local talent will make the case for future support from the Arts Council and other bodies.
McCabe is no stranger to working in support of young people. For a number of years, he has run the Young Stars acting database, which lists information on actors aged between 8 and 22 years of age, and is regularly used by film and television production companies and theatre producers.
He could scarcely have found a more suitable vehicle for the company's aspirations. Displaying an astute social conscience that chimes with the climate of disaffection currently stalking some parts of Northern Ireland, Herons focuses on a group of young people for whom life holds no prospects. It is a play about lost childhood, about a group of younsters who hang around aimlessly in a local park.
A shared sense of alienation leads to violence, to bullying, to hitting out at those they consider to be the weakest link. The original is set in London, but McCabe sought permission from the writer to relocate it to Belfast and set it in the Waterworks on the Antrim Road.
'Simon had no problem at all with that. It turns out that he was actually born in Belfast. His mother comes from here, though he left as a small child and has never been back. He is delighted that the play is receiving its Irish premiere right here in his own home city.'
41-year old Stephens is one of the most highly regarded writers in the UK, whose work is characterised by its colloquial, no-holds-barred style and its ability to speak directly to the younger generation.
For a number of years he taught on the Young Writers' Programme at London's Royal Court, a prolific melting pot for new writing. He is now an Artistic Associate at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, which describes its eclectic slate of work as 'provoking, entertaining, popular, messy, contradictor and diverse'. Stephens takes up the story of his family roots.
'I rang my uncle to get some information on my family connections to Belfast and he rang my granma. This is what he found out: my great grandad was a cabinetmaker at Harland & Wolff, my great grandmother was a mill girl and performed and sang at concert parties. My granma was born in Roseland Place off Donegall Road and baptised in St Anne's Cathedral.
'My mum was born in Sunnyside Street, off the Ormeau Road. She grew up on the Saintfield Road and went to Downey House and Methody. My grandad was head of PE at Methody and coached the winning Schools Cup team in 1952. So, not bad Belfast connections, eh?'
Established actors James Doran and John Travers lead the cast and are joined by new arrivals Domhnall Herdman, Siobhan Kelly, Conor Doran and Anthony Boyle. Herdman plays Billy, a sweet natured teenager who lives with his father Charlie (Doran), himself the victim of domestic violence at the hands of his estranged alcoholic wife.
Charlie has witnessed the murder of a young girl. After much soul searching, he reports the incident to the police, the result of which is the conviction of the brother of Billy's schoolmate Scott (Travers). The arrest signals the start of a campaign of threats, intimidation and violence.
'It's a powerful portrayal of the kind of stuff that is happening all around us,' observes McCabe. 'Our director, Patsy Hughes, was determined to steer well away from one side or the other. It's a reflection of what goes on in many urban communities in Northern Ireland, where the local park is the playground for young people getting up to bad stuff. They feel confused, overlooked, marginalised and they turn to violence without thinking about the consequences.
'It is a real issue-based piece – single parent families, young people as carers, bullying, father-son relationships, platonic friendship, lost youth. It's harrowing, but there's humour too and a lightness of touch. It's a great Valentine's Day date – the perfect antidote to all those roses and hearts and sickly sweetness.'
Herons runs at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast from February 12 - 16, with a matinee on Saturday at 3pm. Parental advisory – over 15s only due to violent content.