John McCann's brooding drama borders on the bleak, but a sense of hope mirrored by the youth of today points to a better tomorrow

Tara Lynne O'Neill as Harpo and Hayley McQuillan as Hector

During the recent election campaign, the Northern Ireland media frequently shone a spotlight on young voters, asking how they would make their voice heard above the tribal jungle drums, and pondering how their action at the ballot box on the Thursday might influence the result. Yet in the coverage on Friday from TV studios and the election count centres, those young voices were rarely discussed never mind heard as the results were relayed to the public.

In his new play Famla, John McCann juxtaposes a forgotten youth against two middle-aged characters.

Young Hector (played by Hayley McQuillan) had been aimlessly planning to break in and explore a seemingly abandoned rural cottage on the lough shore. Instead she finds a feral and paranoid occupant Harpo (Tara-Lynne O’Neill) trapped inside by the secrets of her mind and her past.

The pair form a prickly alliance, with Harpo continuing to dig up the floor like an Orchard County Indiana Jones with a trowel while paying Hector for her silence and shopping, as long as she’s not ‘follied’ by anyone.

The burden of family loss and the relationship with her slaughterhouse father weigh heavily on Harpo’s shoulders. The lack of closure makes her restless; the lack of companionship or distraction increases her hysteria.

Tara Lynne O'Neill as Harpo

A local farm hand Botley (Rhodri Lewis) joins the fray. His role is to bring his own recollections and provide alternative interpretations of the unravelling story.

The unresolved ghosts of Harpo’s past build the first act up into a dark and confusing narrative. The isolation in which the characters live breeds complexity rather than rural simplicity. After the interval, the mood immediately lightens, the power dynamic shifts and now young Hector is driving the pace and introducing bright shafts of hope into the bedevilled home.

‘It’s like catchin’ an echo in a bottle’ is how Harpo describes her childhood reel-to-reel tape recorder, which allows voices from the past to play into the present. Yet the heavy reliance on these sound effects with their convenient coincidences at times stretches their believability. As a theatrical device, the recordings become a fourth cast member, ever-present on stage and enhanced by Graeme Stewart’s speaker placement and sound design.

‘Back to the beginning’ shouts Harpo as she rewinds the tape to replay a scene from earlier days when her father was active in the house. ‘If we got it wrong we’ll start again, again and again until we get it right.’

Tinderbox Theatre Company’s artistic director Patrick J O’Reilly leaves actors not involved in a scene to sit in the visible wings, a sign that the only secrets are in the heads of the characters as well as a reminder that being out of sight cannot be equated with being out of mind in this brooding drama.

Rhodri Lewis as Botley

Rhodri Lewis as Botley

Performed in an accessible dialect local to the Montiaghs surrounding Lough Gullion, the chit chat races past so fast that at times the humour in the dialogue is skipped over and as a result, isn't always successful in allaying the growing tension.

An alumni of the Lyric Theatre Drama Studio, Hayley McQuillan makes her professional theatre debut in Famla with a confident performance as the directionless Harpo amongst the dense vernacular and depressed emotions. O’Neill brings out Harpo’s agitation with physical ticks and a palette of dismissive glances and snappy retorts.

Ciaran Bagnall’s wooden set at first reinforces the cramped conditions in the dilapidated dwelling, before being cracked apart to somewhat confusingly create an ever-changing configuration of corridors and passageways. The science fiction dystopian feel is further enhanced with bales of tangled tape reflecting the stage lights and giving off a metallic scrunching noise when handled. Long shadows animate the back wall of the stage. The colours are muted, with the maroon Formica table top the brightest part of the set during the first half.

McCann has fashioned an unusual and distinctive piece of writing – revisiting events, replaying tapes, resetting scenes and reimagining reunions – and Tinderbox have converted it into a minimalistic production that allows the mood to speak for itself.

The darkness threatens to overwhelm before the interval and the eventual pay-off is nearly too brief to fully lift the tension, as if reinforcing the likelihood that old habits die hard and Harpo’s demons will take time to be exorcised.

Tara Lynne O'Neill and Hayley McQuillan

Reality and imagination are just two ends of a spectrum upon which the characters of Famla slide around as they face up to life which has ‘no more beginnings’.

There’s more than a nod to alternative truths and competing narratives. The lost years of pouring over past tribulation certainly mirror the wider Northern Ireland family’s own relationship with its troubled past with its inability to go ‘back to the beginning’.

Yet Hector offers the hope that the imagination and tenacity of youth can break through and if listened to it can create a second act that offers opportunity for older generations like Harpo and Botley to change their habits and begin to move on.

Fresh ideas, new ways, positive attitudes. An entirely appropriate vision given Famla’s inclusion in the wider Imagine! Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics programme, whose strapline is 'prepare for a new tomorrow'.

Famla is recommended for ages 16+ and is at the MAC, Belfast until Saturday, March 25 at 8.00pm (plus Saturday matinee 3.30pm). Tickets available by phoning (028) 9023 5053 or at www.themaclive.comThe production will then tour to Cushendall Golf Club (March 29), Craic Theatre, Coalisland (March 30), The Playhouse, Derry (March 31) and The Market Place, Armagh (April 1). Booking details available at www.tinderbox.org.uk.