Rosemary Jenkinson takes a satirical swipe at big business and avaricious community leaders in 21st century Northern Ireland
Tinderbox Theatre Company’s Planet Belfast is a breath of fresh air for those in search of a Northern Irish play that sets its sights higher than the Titanic or the Troubles.
Playwright Rosemary Jenkinson uses her latest work to mock Northern Ireland’s almost comical sense of self-regard – one character claims we could ‘win the Olympics in navel-gazing’ – and to tackle some of the big, global issues facing humanity in the 21st century.
Alice is Northern Ireland’s only Green Party MLA. 18 months into the job, she’s on a quest to stop GM crops entering the country, and is willing to scratch Sinn Féin’s backs to do so.
Her husband, Martin, a historian of sorts, is cynical about everything, from the sperm count-boosting blueberries-and-walnuts diet broody Alice has him on, to the ‘victim industry’ that sees him employed at Conor Grimes’s undersubscribed counselling centre.
Into this mix comes a mysterious figure from Alice and Martin’s past, cueing a tricksy plot involving sex, lies and moral quandaries, coloured with some semi-nudity and a 1990s indie soundtrack.
Abigail McGibbon’s Alice isn’t always convincing. She’s a bold presence, but it’s hard to buy this pushy, often violent drunk as someone who would give much of a monkey’s about energy-saving light bulbs or composting. Basically, to borrow another of the play’s turns of phrase, she just doesn’t seem ‘gay, liberal or chic’ enough to convince as a resolved eco-warrior.
Paul Kennedy is more of a fit as the ingratiating husband, full of opinions but reluctant to voice them anywhere they might count. The reliably compelling Kennedy manages to make this lazy, two-faced, adulterous armchair critic sympathetic – no mean feat indeed.
Tara Lynne O’Neill plays Claire, who goes from a seemingly vulnerable blast from the past to the scheming grand bitch of the piece, chewing Martin up and spitting out a man who has become ‘more of an embarrassment than Iris Robinson’.
Grimes, meanwhile, gets a lot of the funniest lines, consistently nailing them in a winningly deadpan performance. His character, Danny, a republican bomber-turned-victim counsellor, seems to have wound up somewhere between passive-aggressive and an out-and-out sociopath. He’s desperate to hang onto his peace money, arrogantly dismissive of the groups he works with and distrustful of Martin’s lack of a ‘story’.
As well as Northern Ireland’s scab-picking ways, the play touches upon wider society’s resigned amorality (‘I sold my conscience years ago, but I do have a fantastic flat,’ shrugs Claire) and the major corporations’ ability to defend the indefensible (GM crops aren’t raping the Earth, we’re told; instead, they represent ‘consensual sex between nature and business’).
Casting-wise, Alice and Claire’s roles could perhaps have been swapped between McGibbon and O’Neill, but the script, the effectively stark set design upstairs at The MAC and most of all the play’s willingness to look beyond 'our wee country' make this a worthwhile outing.
Planet Belfast may be a small step for Jenkinson and Tinderbox, but it’s a giant leap for Northern Ireland theatre. It runs in The MAC until March 2.