Huzzies

Stacey Gregg's story of the rise and fall of a Belfast band is saved by Kerrie Quinn's bullish central performance

Occasionally you see an actor really take the part they’re playing by the throat, and turn it into something compellingly watchable. It happens in the MAC’s production of Stacey Gregg’s new drama Huzzies, where Kerrie Quinn’s performance in the central role of Dee reminded me forcibly of Andrew Strong’s hugely charismatic contribution to Andrew Parker’s film The Commitments, another band-coming-of-age saga.

Quinn controls the stage completely, galvanising every scene that she appears in, which is most of them. Brash, sassy, motor-mouthed and sexy, she bullishly fronts Huzzies, the band she views as a potential bust-out route from the suffocatingly uneventful working-class Belfast she grew up in.

Does she want it? Boy, does she ever. Too much, in fact: a psychologically cracked character, Dee literally prostitutes herself to get money for the band’s equipment. Wracked by inner guilt, she ends up taking the fall for a church fire that she never started, is thrown in prison and left to rot as the other Huzzies play on haplessly without her.

Kerri Quinn’s fast-rap Belfast vernacular is totally convincing, and she swears with virtuoso relish and alacrity, daring nay-sayers of any description to defy her. But Dee is more than potty-mouth and streetwise corner-dealer, and Quinn shows it.

The scene where Dee is glimpsed in sex-worker mode, ministering to the needs of an anonymous client through designer Niall Rea’s luridly lit, semi-transparent backdrop, is impregnated by Quinn with the pain her character feels, the noxious mix of personal disgust and raw ambition that fuels her. It’s a riveting, disturbing moment.

None of the other three characters is conflicted in the way that Dee is, and none so obviously driven. Doireann McKenna’s Shona dabbles with her keyboards, noodling out the occasional catchy melody. Shona is, however, by her own admission destined for university, a law degree, and a comfortable afterlife in the leafy suburbs.

Cat Barter's Claire veers woozily between wannabe rock chick and dutifully obeisant church-attender, ingesting a dodgy mushroom along the way and falling over. John Shayegh’s Pete, meanwhile, is a droll study in laid-back, non-interventionist guitar heroism. When he plays, he plays: when he doesn’t, he’s flicking through a tabloid aimlessly, or chillaxing vapidly.

For the first 20 minutes of the show, when they’re introducing themselves and establishing the group dynamic, the four spark the action along impressively, wise-cracking and dissing one another effervescently.

Thereafter the writing gradually loses focus, as playwright Gregg explores side avenues such as Claire’s religiosity, and Shona’s defiantly bourgeois values. There’s a schematic feeling to the characterisation in these sections which is alienating, a clunking impression that we’re doing 'issues' now, and the actors have suddenly morphed into ideological avatars, rather than living, breathing human beings.

There’s also little sense of how the group itself, Huzzies, grows musically: there’s a gaping void between their kazoo-blowing, garage band beginnings, and the sudden unleashing of a fully-fledged, fully competent performance just before the interval. Dramatically speaking, that gap needs filling.

Act Two also has its discontinuities. It isn’t totally obvious why Dee takes the arson rap, and doesn’t come back to rehearsals on her release from prison. Nor is it easy to understand why Pete starts reminiscing fondly about the band when it finally seems to be imploding.

That’s because we haven’t seen enough of the four Huzzies actually enjoying themselves together. Instead, they spend most of their stage time arguing, bickering, confronting one another, and wasting time at rehearsals. If you’ve ever been in a band yourself, you will, of course, know that these things happen.

But there’s bonhomie too, the visceral pleasure of making loud, anarchic noises together, the thrill of fashioning something new, different and possibly life-changing between you. Too little of that is present in Gregg’s script for the actors to really get hold of, and communicate to the audience. The show, as a consequence, ends bathetically, not with a bang, but with a rather inconsequential whimper.

That’s a pity, but it doesn’t detract from what is essentially a fine ensemble performance from the four actors, all of whom multi-task convincingly as singers and instrumentalists. Quinn is particularly powerful vocally, and it’s a shame we don’t hear more of her.

It is, in fact, Quinn’s pizzazz, energy and natural charisma as Dee that ultimately makes Huzzies a show worth seeing. She’s star quality in the making, and I’ll be very surprised indeed if we don’t see more of her in the future.

Huzzies runs in The MAC until October 30, 2012. The Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's continues until November 4.