A suppressed emotion will do anything to survive in Patrick J O'Reilly's gay conversion therapy drama

Rarely in contemporary drama has social awkwardness been represented better than in Damage, Patrick J O'Reilly's play about gay conversion therapy, which premiered at the Brian Friel Theatre at Queen's University on the first night of the 2014 Outburst Queer Arts Festival.

A thirtysomething man in a suit and a pretty woman dressed in jeans and jumper enter a cut price hotel room. There is some business about his briefcase and how close they want to sit. Are they a prostitute and her client, or victims of fate? Their discomfiture is catching but in this context, audience squirming is good.

As unhappy gay man Robert tries to bed – or rather tries to want to bed – straight woman Louise, using every trick from gulps of red wine to (very Ulster, this) a flip through the Almighty's bestselling self-help title, the Bible, we feel his pain.

The shakes, sweating and tortured speech patterns as Robert and Louise edge nearer on the counterpane make Keith Singleton's performance a brilliant piece of naturalism. There is a lengthy dramatic pause in the first scene, but whereas in Pinter pauses contain violence or desire, here there is just despair. 

Of course, Northern Ireland is one of the parts of the world where the plot of Damage resonates and, in fact, O'Reilly's script is based on a true story. Fortunately the playwright has not gone for a clinical approach with the case study but has imaginatively mainlined the psychological predicament of his central figure, using Katie Richardson's clever soundtrack to pinpoint the man's inner tension.

We hear a kind of urban rush, for instance – like the train taking Robert inexorably towards homosexuality and away from the 'normality' he says he craves – at key moments, and towards the end of the play the voice of his psychologist detailing what he needs to do to escape from himself.

Kerri Quinn's Louise is nervy, attractively played as a typical Belfast girl. Her backstory could usefully be extended a touch, to reveal a little more about how her ex-husband dumped her for another woman, and the kind of abuse that has brought her to this very risky situation. At one point, she says poignantly: 'He didn't want me enough (to stay).'

But the first two thirds of Damage are powerful, as is the climax. While Robert makes the clumsiest of overtures and Louise wonders whether this is worth the trouble, we learn something about the play's title. Louise becomes jumpy at Robert's behaviour; she keeps saying that she's running out of time. She is not after money, just validation and a kind of love.

Yet, at some level, these two damaged souls click. It is genuinely touching when Robert tells Louise that she is beautiful, the adjective she wants to hear and to own.

O'Reilly has a real sense of the way articulacy vanishes when people struggle with big feelings. There is even some humour, albeit of the black variety. For example, when Robert asks Louise what she wants and lists a smorgasbord of sexual options, it causes nervous laughter. And their discussion of the online names that wannabe dates use is also funny.

A genuine surprise arrives in bed when Robert finally starts to grapple with this slim woman, and his own sexual orientation. That surprise is the third character, Fantasy, a wordless but key role played by an attractive guy (Matt Forsythe) in ripped t-shirt and boxers. What he does is entice Robert like some medieval devil as he touches him up, keeps replacing Louise and generally makes a subversive mockery of this attempted coupling.

Using a suggestive and symbolic gap in the middle of the bed, the protagonists rise, fall, make different connections and illustrate perfectly the fact that there will always be three people in this attempted lovemaking. During these scenes, the acting is reminiscent of the best modern dance by artists like Wayne McGregor and Michael Clark. It is simultaneously physical, beautiful and sad.

As Louise realises it maybe won't happen for her physically and emotionally, and Robert tries to explain his problems, there is a longueur. It is as if the plot has vanished along with Robert's fake desire, and when he brings out his excuses about being a virgin, it is difficult to imagine that Louise wouldn't figure out what his problem really is. She is a fairly streetwise woman, after all, and surely would have asked the question.

In the end, however, the momentum picks up and Robert manages to keep her interest just long enough to stop her from walking out. What follows is a nasty and believable denouement. As the chilling voice of the shrink tells us, when you suppress a deep impulse, it will do anything to survive.

Outburst Queer Arts Festival continues in venues across Belfast until November 22.