“We don’t look like a couple” ... “We’re not”Two strangers sit nervously perched on the edge of a hotel bed. It’s mid-afternoon and their chatter is stilted and full of gaps. Questions that would usually be normal in conversation feel prying and unnatural as they try and break the ice.
“This is new for me and I feel anxious.”Robert (played by Keith Singleton) can’t bring himself to say that he’s gay. In fact, he’s desperate to prove that he has put same-sex attraction behind him. Thus through a website he has arranged to meet Louise (Kerri Quinn) to further his conversion.
Robert is tormented by his ‘old’ self. Accompanied by Katie Richardson’s rambunctious sound track, he shakes uncontrollably, unable to settle in conversation never mind make a cup of tea or cuddle his companion.
“I hate myself. They told me I need to fight it, but I can’t fight it any longer. I just wish it would leave me alone.”There are three personalities in the room - quite literally three in the very bed they’re sitting on - as Robert battles to repress his instinct and sexuality. A silent Matt Forsythe skilfully slips in and out of the action - and Robert’s attention - without hogging the limelight or distracting from the two protagonists.
It’s not all about Robert. Issues around isolation and the need to feel wanted are explored as Louise’s gentle yet assertive nature is tested when Robert’s attraction fails to ignite, and her patience turns to humiliation and rejection.
“... taught by my pastor, parents and friends to hate myself ...”Robert’s use of religion - probably ‘religion’ rather than ‘faith’ – was fundamental to the damaging counselling he had received. The circumstances under which he signed up to this therapy wasn’t really explored. While “the church” isn’t made out to be the only bad guy in Damage, the aspects of evangelical fervour that promote gay conversion with its abusive practices as a healthy solution are clearly and deservedly criticised.
A play can never be a seminar, and the nuances and width of a subject have to be boiled down to a single narrative. But the experiences of Robert in the play don’t seem far fetched as the abusive practices in gay reparative therapy are explored.
Two thirds of the way through I felt the plot would resolve cleanly in one of two ways. And suddenly it took a third darker twist as the fifty minute play came to an end.
O’Reilly’s play has the good sense to stay short and leave plenty to the imagination of the audience. The audience in the upstairs Brian Friel space sat right up against the hotel bedroom set and found laughs in unexpected places as they witnessed the early awkwardness of the encounter and the turbulent emotions of the characters. While a difficult and challenging subject, the quality of the script and the intensity of the acting made it a very satisfying piece of theatre that deserves a longer run and wider audiences.
There are two further performances of Damage at 7pm and 9pm on Saturday 15 November in the Brian Friel Theatre in the QFT as part of the Outburst Queer Arts Festival.
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Update - Jane Hardy's review of Damage on Culture Northern Ireland is worth a read.