How Many Miles to Babylon?

Adapted from the novel by Jennifer Johnston, this story of class, war and lost love is a marvel

There is a drama behind a drama at the opening of How Many Miles to Babylon? at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. The director, Philip Wilson, comes onto stage before the performance to alert us to the problem.

It is the stage. There is a big circular central section which revolves, enabling scene shifts as the foreground winds its way to the darkness and another set gracefully slips round. It is bust. They had problems with it all day, and he just hopes it will work for the show and that we will be patient if it doesn’t.

In Act One, the shifts are between a military tent in Flanders in 1915, where a young soldier anticipates his death, and the drawing room of his aristocratic Irish family, which should come round to replay his earlier life there.

When the central section does start to move it grounds a bit, then needs a shove from a stage hand and then tilts alarmingly. The performers carry on performing, on a slope – a shifting slope – and though effecting to be dainty and decorous, have to do so while keeping balance and negotiating the big step that has been created for them by this technical mayhem.

Which is a pity, because the play is good. Adapted from the novel by Jennifer Johnston by Alan Stanford, the central story is the friendship between the child of the Anglo Irish big house and the roughneck peasant. Alex Moore and Jerry Crowe are played by Anthony Delaney and Ryan McParland.

The two boys, with just a smidgen of homoerotic suggestion between them, take naturally to each other through their humour, their love of horses and the lake and the swans. Nothing could be simpler, more darling and right. But the class-obsessed context makes their friendship anathema to the big house family.

Then the boys go off to war – one as an officer, the other as a private – and the same fixations on order and standing pervade the military approach, replicating the same problems for the boys. Even the parents seem recreated in the officers.

The sharp-tongued mother, the cynical father are mirrored in Major Glendinning (played by Richard Teverson), who is dictatorial and inhuman, and an English officer Bennett (Jeremy Lloyd), who laughs at all this, sees through it, but lightly, just wanting to get on with being a hero or getting killed.

This is a statement about how class and militarism work in the same way to crush human feeling and to destroy love and friendship. In that sense, this is not a play specifically about war; it is about how class and the army can work in the same way to kill love.

All of the actors are brilliant; all of the characters are sharply framed and knowable people. For me, the outstanding performance is from McParland as Jerry (as in Jeremiah, not Gerard), but it seems almost unfair to all the other main characters to say that.

Catherine Cusack as Alicia, Alec’s mother, is crystalline, dangerous, scary. It is she, not the father, who matches the role of the brutal major who would kill Alec or make a man of him. And Alec responds to the major as to his mother, not knowing whether to love or hate him.

Staged to commemorative the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, this play is a marvel. It doffs the cap a few times to Brian Friel – like Johnston, also a North West writer – in a structure of matching halves that is similar to that of Translations. At one point Alec recalls a list of Irish place names, like a litany, as if to remind us of The Faith Healer. You should not miss this one.

How Many Miles to Babylon? runs in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast until May 24.