Sleep Eat Party

The kids are alright in the latest production from Tinderbox

It’s a cold, wet night in Belfast, I’ve a sore throat and I’m about to spend an hour and a half watching a play about our disorderly, disaffected youth. Evidently I look as miserable as I feel. ‘Don’t worry,' says the avuncular receptionist at the Old Museum Arts Centre. 'You’re in for a real treat.’ I pick up my ticket for Sleep Eat Party and, much to my surprise, I discover he’s dead right.

The latest production from Tinderbox is theatre crafted with care, attention and a surprising degree of subtlety. Sleep Eat Party mainly follows five damaged young people – the sexually confused Jo (Brian Markey), alcoholic Jesus-freak Daniel (Shaun Blaney), terminally depressed Terry (John Travers), pill popping Ronnie (John Shayegh), and his would-be girlfriend Shannon (Roisin).

Nominally set in a halfway house for unruly young adults, through a series of flashbacks and soliloquies we watch as they scale the dizzying heights of drugs, clubs, sex, and the stultifying lows of depression, loneliness and even death in the adult world.

The potential for mishap when a middle-aged writer (in this case Damian Gorman) decides to get down with the kids is massive. But Sleep Eat Party is no shoddy sub-Trainspotting paean to yoff culture, thanks mainly to its lively, believable script - the play is a piece of verbatim theatre, based on over 40 hours of interviews conducted with young people from across Northern Ireland.

So we get lots of ribald language (which goes down very well with the mainly young audience), some genuinely affecting personal stories and plenty of universal issues, most saliently the difficulties parents and children have trying to understand each other. ‘They love you as long as you’re cute. Hit 14 and the hormones kick in and they don’t want to know,’ explains the doomed Terry.

The wrought iron bars and scaffolds that make up Ciaran Bagnell’s exquisite set allow director Michael Duke to add a physical element to the work. Entire scenes take place with the cast nonchalantly hanging upside down, emphasising the gap between their world view and that of their parents.

Comic moments abound, not least when Daniel asks Jesus to ‘bless all the people in this nightclub’, and the whole things clips along at a fair pelt. Unfortunately, at times the characters do seem to wilt under the sheer of weight of problems they are asked to embody - the Troubles, drink, drugs, sex, God, death, single mothers, baby fathers. Sometimes it is all a little too verbatim.

Nevertheless, the cast deliver the piece with aplomb and no little youthful vigour. The halfway house provides an effective framing device but thankfully neither Duke nor Gorman allow themselves to be constrained by the setting. By far the most effective scene is when Terry's ashes are scattered, Terry being the one character who ‘tried to live like you’re supposed to. A bit happy, a bit sad.’

Young people today are marginalised, victimised and often misunderstood. In seeking to engage with them in an honest, non-judgemental way, Sleep Eat Party has achieved something truly laudable – theatre that is socially conscious, truthful and entertaining.

Peter Geoghegan

Sleep Eat Party runs at Belfast's Old Museum Arts Centre until November 19 and then goes on tour. Check out our Culture Live! listings for more information.