Sunday, February 18, 2018

EdgeFest - Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful and East Belfast Boy - getting inside the heads of two men (Prime Cut at The MAC until 3 March)

Prime Cut are currently presenting two very different pieces of one-handed theatre in Belfast as part of The MAC's EdgeFest season of plays that address Northern Ireland's mental health crisis. You can book to see them as solo shows, or else see them back-to-back on a few dates when performances deliberately overlap.

After a relationship was cruelly cut short and his parents passed away, middle-aged Malachy is locked into a cycle of depression. Depression tinged with hope. Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful is staged on a sloping platform with a shallow pool cut into it. A trickle of drops fall down from above, like the tears that run down Malachy's cheeks and into his soul. The ripples are reflected off the shiny back panels of the stage, seeping into every area of his life. Later it rains and it's apparent just how much control and precision has been built into Ciaran Bagnall's set.

Charlie Bonner lip-syncs to Torn and soon tells the listening audience that "I'd like to pop off quietly having cleaned up after myself". The tall bearded man describes his journey towards this place of nightly contemplation of ending his life. And he explains what stops him. At times, Bonner portrays a man who is as shallow as the water into which he steps. Yet he also draws out the depth in John Patrick Higgins' script which gives voice to a man whose mental health is in turmoil.

The dialogue is peppered with humour - prepare to laugh at suicide and very masculine descriptions of vaginas - but it is delivered from a position of morose misery. For extended periods, background music plays from Malachy's battered and slightly soggy portable radio, sometimes competing with his crucial utterances.

I was disappointed that the sum of the parts - the good script, set, acting and direction (Rhiann Jeffrey) and great lighting - didn't add up to create a mightier theatrical experience. The building blocks were there, but the mix of pathos and humour never quite gelled for me, though Malachy's final speech was a powerful reminder about what keeps people going when they hit their darkest moments.

After the interval, the pace changes with a remarkably youthful Ryan McParland springing onto the stage as Davy, the East Belfast Boy of the play's title. He frenetically dances to the techno track booming out. Davy is young man who is never stands at peace. It's a perfect piece of casting given McParland's previous history of playing jittery characters. One hand is constantly hovering over his crotch while the other tends to his sniffing nose.
"I never want to leave these streets; you know everyone, even the ones you don't like."

The piece is packed with emotion and deliberately cluttered with words. We learn about Davy's life and loves in spurts, gleaning facts and assimilating information from the stream of consciousness written by Fintan Brady, based on workshops in 2015 with young men from Beersbridge and Newtownards Roads.

Sarah Jane Shiels' lighting design allows the stage to darken and the audience to become the focus as Davy bounces his ideas, personality and lip off the front few rows. It's incredible - though slightly frightening - to watch McParland ad lib in character, actively building up rapport with the crowd, and creating laughs at their expense when they answer questions he poses (sometimes semi-rhetorically). He becomes a young twenty-something guy who lives in a world whose only certainty seems to be that using leads to dealing.

Anyone familiar with Oona Doherty's recent dance shows will recognise her choreography that gives Davy his energy. The heartbeat of the pumping techno soundtrack drives the show forward and director Emma Jordan pulls the chaos and energy together to create an hour long show which startles and surprises, confuses and alarms. The ending is unsignposted and an unsettling finish to an otherwise enthralling piece of theatre.

You can read my preview of the EdgeFest season of theatre over on Culture Northern Ireland. The first play The Man Who Fell To Pieces is now on tour. Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful and East Belfast Boy continue in The MAC until 3 March.

Recognising that the arts can be a vehicle for expression and healing, a series of free workshops, panels and drop-ins looking at mental health and emotional well-being are being held in The MAC on Saturday 24 and Sunday 25 February. Check their What's On page for details.

Production photos: Matt Curry

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