Two Roads West

Kabosh’s play in a taxi graduates from the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival to Feile An Phobail

Most by now will have heard of ‘the play in a black hack’ and many will have formed preconceptions about it. It’s easy to be cynical, and on paper the notion that the concept is too clever for its own good is hard to shake.

In practice, though, it somehow not only works but manages the successful synthesis of performance and cultural tour. For my money, Two Roads West is Kabosh’s most successful realisation of the laudable remit to 'take theatre into unfamiliar places and spaces'.

The familiarity of the cab ride coupled with the unfamiliarity of being caught in the all too intimate crossfire of dramatic dialogue leads to a kind of sensory dichotomy where you have to keep jolting yourself back to the reality that this is essentially a play on the move.

During our hour together, ‘Bill’ our Shankill taxi guide for the tour and fellow passenger ‘Rosie’ reveal as much of their own fractious history as that of west Belfast.

Like all good taxi tours up west, there are stops at historic landmarks and each time, Bill’s educational preamble gives way to Rosie’s scattergun, open-hearted reminiscences about growing up on the Falls.

The dynamic between the two works beautifully. Two Roads West may possess much novelty value but it negates the clutches of post-conflict kitsch by having a number of very pertinent considerations at its heart.

At one point, reflecting on his personalised tour, Bill makes a comment about objectivity and truth and points out wryly that in another (real-world) tour of the west, the republican ex-prisoners of Coiste give their version of history up the Falls before, at the peace line, handing tourists over to Loyalist ex-prisoners for their version of events.

The unreliability of history is recognised, the brutal truth that there’s no such thing as a defining critical narrative. All we have are a collection of histories, each one telling the same story from a differing perspective.

The narrative of the west indeed changes before our very eyes, such as on one occasion when a Muslim family traipse up the dilapidated Shankill while Bill is explaining the traditional arrangement of four families to a two-up two-down along the Shankill.

It could be said that west Belfast itself is the third character in this play. It’s an ever-changing, mercurial back-drop; a signifier of a shared past and an uncertain future. In another lovely moment, Bill talks of the Shankill being decimated in the pursuit of capital. ‘Profits before people,’ he wryly muses, against a stretch of derelict land due for commercial development where locals have poignantly (and probably futilely) daubed demands for social housing in its place.

Everywhere on the tour the shared character of the Falls and Shankill is brought forth. It doesn’t take an anthropologist to see that save the colour of the kerbstones there’s little difference between the two roads.

As we drive through the gate on Northumberland street that separates protestant and catholic, Rosie remarks that she never remembered the Falls and the Shankill being so close. The play exposes the tragic lie that physically and culturally separates the two communities; that to be loyal to the crown was to be rewarded.

Bill’s epiphany comes when he goes to England and is seen as just another ‘Paddy’. As he comes to see, it’s the 'truth' of Empire. It also perhaps reveals the biggest tragedy of the Troubles: that communal division didn’t matter to those who ruled, be it from Stormont, Westminster or City Hall. As Bill’s estranged socialist father has it, Empire and capital divided the working man the better to exploit them.

And what a divide we had and still have here. Two Roads West makes very clear that the heart of the matter was and still is class. There is perhaps an uncomfortable irony that this play exists at all because of the post-Troubles tourism industry, thereby giving us outsiders (i.e. non-westies) an opportunity to witness first-hand those areas that haven’t been privy to the ‘post conflict dividend’. This is bleakly highlighted again and again by the obvious lack of regeneration in the area.

The sub-plot of Rosie reaching a crossroads in her life and remembering a lost teenage sweetheart from the area is a bittersweet confection, and her final decision, to stick to remembering the past rather than revisiting it rather aptly frames the whole play.

Powerful performances from Vincent Higgins and Carol Moore are made more so by the intimacy of the taxi space and much less embarrassingly awkward than it has any right to be (except when I, alone out of five passengers, started applauding at the end).

The concept that 'we ain’t so different' ain’t so different, but what is different is this beautiful play’s attempt to say we have more in common than apart. Another tragedy of the Troubles was that players on both sides, even those who considered themselves to be class strugglers, lost sight of that.

The past may be a different country, but whether it’s British or Irish depends very much on who you ask ‘up West’.

Joseph Nawaz