A Play That Belongs To Other People?

Days of Wine and Roses forces boozy Belfast to look in the mirror, says David Lewis

After the play I abandon the Lyric and mooch over the Lagan, up the gentle hill that is Sunnyside Street, where water is still lying on the road from the downpours that had earlier drummed on the theatre roof. I soon hit the Ormeau Road, an area where the playwright Owen McCafferty was raised. On the right, the Errigal Inn and the Pavilion, known fondly to its regulars as ‘the Big House’. On the left, the Vineyard off-licence, and a block along, a Winemark.

Half way across Ormeau Bridge I experience something that for the life of me I can’t remember experiencing in Belfast before – a moment. The navy blue black sky, the curve of trees and streetlights reflected in the water, a neon green Dunnes Stores sign, shimmering just beneath the surface like a giant pike. For a moment Belfast pretends to be beautiful and I believe it.

I press on, past the Rose and Crown, the Hatfield, which is mobbed at the weekends for its after hours offsales, another Winemark, Ulster Television (how many beer adverts a night?), before turning left onto Ormeau Avenue and the Limelight nightclub, where I learned the art of getting drunk as a 16-year-old.

Outside what used to be the Superbowl, now a large building site, I peer through the wire fence at the gutter, where I once lay regurgitating a half bottle of vodka, until my stomach muscles ached.

Then into Blackstaff square, the bright empty space begging for tables and chairs, for the late night café culture that the Council is so desperate to usher in. For the first time I notice the filigreed writing along the side of the Crown Liquor Saloon – ‘Wine Brandy Whiskey Beers’ – before crossing the road to my final destination, the Europa Hotel, one of the few places, if you know a guest, that you can drink all night long.

Belfast is a city saturated in alcohol. Belfast people love a drink. And a drunk. They named an airport after one after all. Despite being set in London, Days of Wine and Roses is about Belfast. As McCafferty notes in the programme: ‘People here know this story. You can see it in their faces. Not all of them, but near enough. When I look in the mirror I can see it in my own face. My Belfast face.’

He’s right, if the sobbing in the audience, the tuts of sympathy and despair, the man behind saying ‘Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear’ throughout Days of Wine and Roses are anything to go by.

McCafferty knows the psychology of drink inside out – the lies and self-deception, the mythologising, the celebratory highs, the crippling hangovers, the boredom, the mania of physical addiction. What lifts his work above yet another play about drinking is his mastery of, what could be called, the poetry of ‘moments’.

At will it seems, he creates one breath-grasping moment after another, from the first meeting of Donal (bookie and ‘Mr Social’) and Mona (‘Lonely Pint’) at the airport, to their engagement on Westminster Bridge, to the racehorse Arkle winning its first Gold Cup. The final moments of the play, when the alcoholism has spiralled way beyond control, hit hardest. We don’t believe Donal when after beating up his wife, he tells her that the violence was more about her than him, then can’t believe it when that statement turns out to be true.

Donal, stage front, attends his first AA meeting, facing up to his demon. Yet behind throughout, in accusing silence, Mona leans over a railing, bottle in hand in mouth in hand in mouth. No escape for her from alcoholism, a word which she says ‘belongs to other people’.

It is to the credit of Fergal McElherron and Gemma Mae Halligan that we don’t for an instant question who Donal and Mona are, nor what they do. Their performances are exquisitely natural, without a hint of hamming. When Donal is dragged off the wagon and ironically toasts Mona’s ‘health and happiness’, the emotion invoked is one of sadness not annoyance, empathy not condemnation.

The characters are as real as the bottom of the bottle. The iconic images of the 60s that flash up during scene changes – the Beatles, Ali, Elvis, Twiggy – seem far removed from reality. Forget the hype, forget what you think you know, this is what people were really like.

Sabine Dargent’s set is all 60s chic, black decor with shards of white light. The jagged edges of the buildings give a hint of London’s urban sprawl. The fixtures and fittings are sparse – a table, two chairs, a sofa, large black blinds. Amidst the minimalist gloom are spots of colour – an orange lampshade, Mona’s red hairband, a pair of white tights. Women had by far the better deal in the 60s when it came to fashion. Mona gets to wear funky dresses and kinky black boots, Donal is stuck with kipper ties and nerdy sweaters.

The lighting cleverly switches in intensity with the moods of the characters. Each time a new low is reached, a blind crashes down, letting in not light but more darkness. The message is clear. Drink illuminates nothing. All it has to offer is blackness. McCafferty’s writing, however, does illuminate, allowing us a painful intimacy with his characters, to share their moments, good or ill.

McCafferty is a playwright with an international reputation, picking up an unprecedented three theatre awards in 2005. The fact that The History of the Troubles can play to packed houses and Days of Wine and Roses, the night I was there, play to a paltry audience of 40, is to Belfast’s shame. But then Belfast people have never been very good at taking a long hard look in the mirror.