Not one for the tourists, Colin Bateman's first stage show makes for a dark and bumpy ride
National Anthem is a Northern Irish play for a Northern Irish audience. Anyone unfamiliar with veda, pastie suppers, sukie drinks and the men who stand on street corners selling 'five lighters for a poun' will be left bewildered. Caught somewhere between warm nostalgia and bitter loathing of our endless capacity for self-pity and self-absorption, Colin Bateman's first ever stage play is a bumpy ride.
The premise is simple, if absurd: two exiles – the perma-tanned Protestant easy-listening musician Gary Miller (played by Stuart Graham) and paranoid Catholic poet Dessie O'Hare (Miche Doherty) – have been commissioned to write a national anthem for Northern Ireland, ahead of the imminent visit of the US President.
Much of the early part of the action is devoted to various abortive attempts to compose a song that everyone can sign up to. As Dessie notes, 'you want to punch the air, but not so much that the other fella wants to rip your head off'.
The doggerel they come up with is too excruciating to be funny: 'in summer we have trouble, in winter we have rubble'. More than a few shades of the Father Ted classic 'My Lovely Horse' here – the crap version, of course. But after that, things get a whole lot darker and messier (though the element of high-octane slapstick is ever-present, sometimes wearyingly so).
This is Colin Bateman after all – or should I say Bateman, as his publishers have rather absurdly rebranded him, presumably on the basis that 'Colin' sounds a bit of a weedy name for an author of laddish, bawdy comic crime fiction. And this is a play about Northern Ireland. So all kinds of screwed-up stories from the past are woven into the convoluted script, and the action revs up to testosterone-rich levels. The desperate shouting tends to hurt your head after a while, and you long for a little respite from the in-your-face intensity of the farce.
Where National Anthem works best is when it forgets to be clever-clever, with self-consciously controversial jokes about George Best, Alex Higgins and Bobby Sands - 'two drunks and an eating disorder' - and just goes with the absurdist flow. It's especially enjoyable when Bateman punctures the self-important pomposity of certain local writers and artists.
In a fever of paranoia after discovering a suspect package in the room, Dessie says, 'they bomb cops and politicians and civilians, and now they're targeting us, the artists who define civilization - trying to bomb us in the very act of definition!'
The interventions of mischief-making Blind Alan (played by Alan McKee), in the role of a comedy badger with dissident republican leanings, are wonderfully surreal and genuinely funny.
And yes, after the shouting and the violence and the capers are over, there is an anthem. A surprisingly soaring, impassioned one, a joint effort by Bateman and composer Conor Mitchell. The audience is invited to stand and join the cast in singing it. You're left wondering whether Bateman is still in ironic mockery mode - or is this sentiment for real?