Monday, August 12, 2019

31 Hours – tackling masculinity and mental health head on (PintSized Productions touring Belfast until 16 August)

Four men dressed in DayGlo orange hi-vis protective clothing and white helmets bustle through the audience to step onto the pub stage. The men are a Network Rail infrastructure cleaning team who mop up after incidents: chemical and, more often, human.

They’re also the vehicle through which playwright Kieran Knowles chose to examine the issue of male suicide. The title, 31 Hours, is the interval between deaths on British railway tracks. The four become proxies for all those affected by the actions of jumpers, wingers, platform crawlers, bouncers, poppers and cows (of the animal variety). A wobbly tightrope is walked to balance the selfish actions of victims while also engendering empathy.

(At the back of my mind I’m conscious that regulated broadcasters and self-regulated newspapers might well struggle to editorially justify the excessive detail of suicide methods contained in this play in their dramas or news reports that this theatre piece includes.)

There’s a thick lashing of gallows humour in this dark 80-minute drama which shifts across its spectrum of gruesome to … just a bit dark in an instant. The idea of being told to ‘man up’ is dissected. Each man, supposedly tough and able to mop up blood and body parts, also highlights the fragile state of most people’s mental health and the need for intentional intervention to ask people about their feelings.

Knowles doesn’t make it easy for any cast picking up his script. Real team work needed to utter the many sentences that are split across four mouths, piecing together the playwright’s fractured dialogue which is interspersed with rhyming performance poetry and monologues. The very physical style of Nuala Donnelly’s direction picks up on this intimacy, and choreographs the four men into tight cycled movements that squeeze them together onto the tiny upstairs stage of The American Bar as they swap genders and ages to pick up minor parts.

There’s an intensity to Robert Crawford’s performance while Richard McFerren has a particularly powerful gaze and gestures. Jonny Everett evokes the pent-up pressure of the constantly measured and monitored job. Matthew Blaney confidently manages the transition from wet-behind-the-ears newbie to become established in the crew. The masculine cast is balanced by the female creatives behind the scenes.

One of the most powerful scenes comes towards the end as three wives and a young son reflect on the worries and mood that the four men carry with them. They have the knowledge, but will they intervene?

What works less well is the localisation of some place names, mixing the Great-Britain nature of Network Rail’s territory with Northern Irish Translink destinations.

PintSized Productions are demonstrating an ability to tackle head-on the big issues in society. Last November’s production of Wasted was a powerful and timely examination of consent, while 31 Hours tackles masculinity and mental health.

31 Hours continues its short tour with public performances in The American Bar (7.30pm, Monday 12 August), Strand Arts Centre (7.30pm, Thursday 15) and Solitude, Cliftonville FC’s Social Club (7.30pm, Friday 16).

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