February 12, 2009
by Joyce McMillan
DEFENDER OF THE FAITH *** BABY BABY **** TRON, GLASGOW FIFTEEN MINUTES *** ORAN MOR, GLASGOW
IT’S often said, by shrewd observers of the cultural scene, that in Northern Ireland even the Catholics are Calvinists; and there’s something of that atmosphere – joyless, hypermasculine, forever estranged from the soft “female” principles of beauty, sensuality and love – about Stuart Carolan’s debut play Defender Of The Faith, first seen in Dublin in 2004, and now given its UK premiere at the Tron Theatre.
Described as a “startlingly intense thriller”, the play is set in a bleak farmhouse on the Irish border in South Armagh, where middle-aged dairy farmer Joe – a lifelong IRA member – blusters and bullies his way through a fraught relationship with his two surviving sons, 20-year-old Thomas and fragile schoolboy Danny. The year is 1986, and all three are committed to the IRA cause, despite little Danny’s enthusiasm for playing Biggles on the kitchen floor. But someone in the area has been passing information to the British army, in a landscape dominated by looming observation posts and the menacing sound of army helicopters; and when a senior IRA man arrives from Belfast to find and execute the “tout”, the family’s history of secrets and lies – one son mysteriously dead, a mother consigned to a mental hospital – comes surging brutally to the surface.
In some ways, Carolan’s play is stronger in the idea than in the execution. His tone is ferociously loud and violent, caught between a screen-thriller style that values violence as pure action, and a theatre style that endows it with more meaning; this is no play for those who can’t tolerate dialogue made up largely of bludgeoning obscenities, and action that includes some serious physical thuggery. Nor does Andy Arnold’s strongly naturalistic production – with a vivid, literal farmhouse set by Jessica Brettle – do much to help the audience make nuanced sense of the play’s 90-minute torrent of dark energy and aggression, despite notably fine performances from Laurie Ventry as Barney – the farmhand who falls under suspicion – and young Callum Munro as Danny.
The play is interesting, though, for the nightmarish vividness with which it shows how a culture of violence and mistrust, once embraced, begins to seep into every corner of life, destroying the very ideals – family, nation, faith – that the men of violence claim to hold sacred. At the end of the play, two more men are dead, like the bag full of unwanted puppies Joe casually drowns at birth; and Thomas and Dannny are curled whimpering on the farmhouse floor, like a pair of motherless unborn children, trying to survive out in the cold.
If mothering is the absent force in the life of Stuart Carolan’s characters, though, the experience of it is the heart, soul and centre of the latest touring show from Stellar Quines, co-produced with new Edinburgh group Perissology, who specialise in theatre for young people. Based on the novel by Vivian French, Baby Baby is a beautifully structured double monologue delivered straight to the audience by two young teenage mothers, “good girl” April, who always wears perfect white trainers, and rebellious Pinkie, a young goth with black-painted fingernails, and wild clothes colour-coded in black and purple.
Both girls know that they’re supposed to tell their young audience that teenage motherhood is a bad, bad thing; they also know that the truth is much more complex. And out of that complexity, director Jemima Levick – with actors Hannah Donaldson and Ashley Smith, and a fine production team – bring to life an extraordinarily deep and moving short show, which comes as a sharp reminder of just how little we hear in our public culture about the intense and complicated reality of motherhood, rather than the idealised or demonised image of it.
Frankly, I’m not sure how far I would recommend this show as educational material for teenage audiences. It recognises the truth that motherhood is one of the most dangerous and thrilling journeys a human being can undertake, and often seems more likely to make the childless weep, than to put kids off casual sex. But it is a magnificent piece of theatre, for any audience, about pregnancy and early motherhood, with all its potential for dreams come true and terrifying nightmares, massive gains and tearing bereavements, pure joy and unimagined sorrow. Sometimes I wondered about the unhappy mothers of these teenage girls, and how their stories had come to such a bitter end; but that might be a play for another day, perhaps created by the same inspired team behind this one.
At Oran Mor, meanwhile, the season trundles on with screenwriter Kim Miller’s short comedy Fifteen Minutes, set backstage at an X-Factor audition, where seasoned talent-show campaigner Jacqueline meets new girl Lynsey, a shy civil servant who’s only there to please her Mum. In outline and structure, Wilson’s 50-minute play is frankly sentimental; two very different women meet, chat, and slightly change each other’s lives, with the help of some breathtakingly cheesy homespun wisdom.
In detail, though, it often achieves a wild, off-the-wall theatricality that is hugely enjoyable, not least when Jacqueline – played with tremendous robust-yet-fragile bravado by River City’s Joyce Falconer – begins to unpack the astonishing contents of her all-purpose auditioner’s suitcase, and to give us a backstage glimpse of her act. Sarah McCardie provides eloquent support as Lynsey, gradually discovering her own star quality. And somewhere behind all this, there lies the beginning of a real investigation into the emptiness that drives the talent-show business; the hunger of the motherless, the childless, and the otherwise unfulfilled for the excitement and the love that life away from the studio lights has somehow failed to provide.
Defender of the Faith is at the Tron, Glasgow, until 28 February. Baby Baby is at Stirling, North Edinburgh and East Kilbride next week, and on tour until 13 March. Fifteen Minutes is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until tomorrow