Lally the Scut

Abbie Spallen creates a local Hell for local people in this powerful, hilarious, gruelling satire on post-conflict Northern Ireland currently running in The MAC

This play works on many levels. Literally. The stage is a mossy ziggurat – channels and pathways criss-cross, trails leading down into the sucking mud of the bog. 

Ciaran Bagnell’s extraordinary set is framed by two telegraph poles, the wire slack between them. They could be twin crosses on a grassy Golgotha: someone is going to get crucified tonight.

Enter Lally (Roisin Gallagher) the titular scut, seven months pregnant in a skin tight white dress that is streaked with filth.

It transpires that her son is entombed in a bog-hole, her feckless husband Francis (Michael Condron) has disappeared, and she has been left with his shot-gun toting mother, Ellen (Carol Moore), who feigns dementia but is as sharp as the knife she carries.

Desperate for help, Lally descends the hill, like Orpheus crossed with Candide, to a local Hell for local people.

The first person she meets is world famous and world weary journalist, Owen (Frank McCusker) who is seeking his own redemption: it seems that 20 years before, the same fate befell Lally and he was the rookie journalist who covered it.

What he saw and how he acted has haunted him in the intervening years. But there is suspicion in the town, and the finger of that suspicion points at Lally. Can lightening strike twice? Lally certainly thinks so: 'It strikes twice. It’s lightenin’. It strikes where it f**king wants.'

Abbie Spallen’s new play for Tinderbox Theatre Company is a coruscating satirical blast at post-conflict Northern Ireland. It is a peripatetic journey through a land populated with repressed, gurning monsters, who spit words like machine gun fire and work out their own narratives, dictated by greed, opportunism and self-interest. This is where the wild things are.

Spallen has a fantastic facility for language and can spin spangly fronds of gold from the basest of matter, which is just as well, as the play fairly rolls around in the stuff.

There is an oddness to the tone on occasion. For example, Vincent Higgins’ golf club-waving, glove puppet-toting Community Liaison Officer –a seething volcano of repression, desperate to be offended by something, anything – seems to belong to a different play to the gently baffled Digger Barnes (deftly played by Gerard McCabe).

The three hander between Lally and a rebranded Republican party – 'We have a Rebranding for Former People of Violence in the Process of Transitioning from Difficult Times of Transition into Equally Difficult Times of Adjustment workshop' – is beautifully played, but it is almost stand-alone, like a perfect sketch trapped in a wider story, grit in an oyster shell.

Tony Flynn’s priest, meanwhile, is barely human, a snarling and demonic deviant. These are bold strokes and sit well with the 'Happy Families' bumptious small businessmen, typified by Alan McKee’s Bun McTasney, who meets a sticky and largely unprompted end. But next to the compromised and uncomprehending journalist – 'I don’t know the rules' – they seem like crude caricatures.

This is the point, of course. Owen, a local boy made good, has seen the world. He has broadened his horizons. He understands everywhere except his homeland, which has warped beyond all recognition, turning in on itself, taking on the trappings of modernity while failing to deal with its fundamental societal flaws. History is condemned to repeat itself, literally. Lightning really does strike twice.

Lally the Scut is over-long and there are muddy patches to Michael Duke’s direction, which seem oddly pitched towards farce when a lower key approach might have been more appropriate, but when it sinks its teeth into its target, it worries it down relentlessly. Spallen’s play is a brutal, exhausting, satirical onslaught, peppered with fantastic phrases, and Gallagher’s central performance is a noble exercise in feistiness flattened by the sheer horror of existence.

By the end of the story, metaphysical but muffled, as the very earth seems to clutch and grab at her child, holding him in the darkness, Lally can but stand there staring into the void, eyes glittered with tears. It is a powerful end to a powerful, hilarious, gruelling play. You will emerge, blinking from the darkness, as Lally does, tenderised.

Lally the Scut runs in The MAC, Belfast until May 2.