Homelessness, suicide and unexpected pregnancy. Somehow, playwright Fionnuala Kennedy shows the funny side
Writer-director Fionnuala Kennedy’s Hostel – no relation to the 'torture porn' movie series of the same name – debuted October 2010 at the Community Arts Forum as part of the Belfast Fringe Festival. In 2012 it has moved a couple of rungs up the ladder to the Baby Grand.
Produced by the Kabosh Theatre Company, tonight’s opening show is sold out, as is a second tomorrow. Like the acclaimed Fringe run, Kennedy’s hard-hitting play retains an emphasis on script and performance over sets, props or costume changes.
Belfast actor Julie Maxwell again takes the central role of Maria, a single mum forced to move into sheltered accommodation. She inhabits the character completely, and has the audience on side from the outset.
Caroline Curran and Louise Mathews portray the various fellow residents and hostel staff Maria encounters. Clad in uniform black against a plain backdrop they use body language, facial expressions and variations in accent to capture their characters. Acting, in other words.
The personalities run the gamut – complainers, happy-go-lucky types, party girls, angry sods, sensitive souls, bureaucrats. In this world, a woman who is still with the father of her child seems out of place. WKD and smokes offer some respite from the tearaway kids, threats of violence and passive-aggressive hostel employees.
The notion of 'home' is tackled unflinchingly. ‘Do you know what he said?’ laments one of the girls, after a meeting with a jobsworth social worker. ‘“It’s not your home". I said, “Is it not? Well, where the f**k is my home then?”’
The coarse language coaxes howls of laughter from the audience. Quite something for a piece of work that confronts everything from suicide to child rape. Kennedy’s script pulls no punches. Just when you think the women’s pitiful backstories have reached rock bottom another harrowing revelation spills from their mouths.
The references to Northern Irish areas draw guffaws of recognition, too. Poleglass and New Lodge receive playful digs, and the banter about the Andersonstown News’s coverage of 'pyjama-gate' seems to resonate (‘It’s our culture,’ protests one character).
Through disputes with staff and one another, the residents of the hostel try to hang onto their dignity. ‘But I give to charity,’ Maria balks when offered a handout of children’s clothes from the St Vincent de Paul Society.
We watch as Maria’s attitude changes from a rabbit-in-the-headlights fearfulness to compromised irritability to spirited defiance. Her character arc culminates in a powerful speech. ‘Just ‘cause we’re in a hostel, they look at us like we’re low-life scum that’s making the rest of the world look bad,’ she spits.
At one hour with no interval, the Baby Grand is immersed for the duration. The production underlines how an unexpected pregnancy can derail a person’s life, and the frank presentation of the issue of homelessness is a welcome change to bleeding-heart soft-soaping. Hostel remains perceptive and affecting, a winning bit of Northern Irish theatre.
For more information about where to see The Hostel check out CultureNorthernIreland's What's On.