The Sweety Bottle

A Falls Road confectionary doubles up as a drinking den in Joe and Gerard Brennan's tale of love, life and lager

We often complain in Belfast that we have the most draconian licensing laws in Europe.

There is many a native taxi driver who has a story about four geezers from Wolverhampton who arrive on a Friday night only to ask to be taken straight back to the airport once they realise that our Presbyterian forebears insist that we be in our beds by 1pm. Licences themselves are tightly policed, prohibitively expensive and mostly owned by some bloke in Bangor.

In the 1970s, however – when movement across town and into the city centre became a daily trauma – illegal drinking dens (known in Ireland and in South Africa as ‘shebeens’) sprang up across the Northern Irish capital.

One such shebeen, situated on the corner of Raglan and Balaclava Street on the Falls Road, was The Sweety Bottle, which is remembered in a new play by father and son writing duo, Gerard and Joe Brennan. Based on Joe's column in the Andersonstown News, The Sweety Bottle is a sentimental and nostalgic affair littered with funny, harsh and interesting characters.

Marty Maguire plays John Brennan, owner and patriarch of the bar (based on Joe's father), dispensing wisdom and care for the people who have made the place their second home. Lalor Roddy plays Manolito (as Spanish as a German car), a derelict and dreamer; while Gordon Fulton gives a scenery-chomping performance as Father Peyton, a morally dubious man of the cloth.

Representing the younger generation, Gerard Jordan and Ciaran Nolan are Sam and John respectively, John being an amiable, highly strung eejit, and Sam a singing sadness drowning his guilt over a failing marriage with the booze that John Brennan serves – ‘wall-climber’, as it’s here creatively known. Come the second half, Carol Moore enters the fray as Eileen, Brennan’s redoutable yet loving better half.

The strength of The Sweety Bottle is in its ferocious pace, and in all those sweary anecdotes that tumble out of the script like sweets from a fat child's pocket.

The bar’s denizens attempt to find some peace within the maelstrom of the Troubles, stringing out their ‘brew’, and trying to walk a ‘non-affiliated’ line amongst the politics of the time. The main threat comes from the IRA in the shape of ‘Grinder’ McVeigh, who Brennan has perhaps unwisely barred. His retributive presence outside the bar faintly menaces all inside.

As the play continues, the emphasis stays firmly on wringing every last ounce of laughter from topics such as dodgy prostitutes, kneecapping, unplumbed toilets, greyhounds, love and marriage. The pace, however, sees the ending of the play becoming a little contrived, as each character finds happiness – or at least the hope of it.

For a play from the pen of a well-known crime writer, Gerard Brennan – one of whose books opens with the immortal line ‘The streets of Beechmount stank of wet dog’ – The Sweety Bottle doesn’t carry enough fear or threat.

As a city, Belfast is proud of its black humour, it’s ability to laugh in the face of just about any atrocity you care to mention. Perhaps that is because of what the city has endured, making its humour more desperate, like a lifebelt in a lonely storm-tossed sea.

In The Sweety Bottle, however, the threat of Grinder McVeigh seems comic and foolish, and the play therefore lacks an intensity and edge that might otherwise have heightened the humour.

As a gentle reminder of a bygone time though, Gerard and Joe Brennan's script brings together a happy mix of anecdote and character. The Sweety Bottle gathers its memories and shares them with a smile, with not a ‘last orders’ to be heard.

The Sweety Bottle runs at the Grand Opera House, Belfast until March 30.