Thursday, February 17, 2022

Callings – celebrating the impact of a helpline that has given confidence and hope to thousands (Kabosh touring until 26 February)

Cara-Friend set up their phoneline and befriending service in 1974. It’s still running today – 0808 8000 390 – open on weekday afternoons and Wednesday evenings.

Dominic Montague’s play Callings goes back to the service’s early days, allowing the audience to listen in to some of the tentative voices ringing in to break their isolation and lower their masks to be themselves.

For some callers, when they finally pluck up the courage to dial the number, they are too scared to talk. Martin (Chris Robinson) and Helen (Paula Carson-Lewis) are staffing the helpline, calm voices of welcome, asking silent clients to simply tap the handset to let them know they’re listening while they chat away. Katie Richardson’s sound design picks up on the tapping noise, morphing it into heart beats and the thump of a disco as the scenes change.

Stuart Marshall’s set design places the Cara-Friend volunteers behind desks in their 1970’s office, while the callers are dramatically liberated from having hold an actual telephone handset, sitting or standing beside an illuminated bulb, a visual symbol of light entering what some indicate is a dark, hidden side of their lives.

Vicky Allen’s portrayal of Bridget warmly captures the hesitancy and handwringing of a twenty something woman who is snatching time away from friends. As her hands writhe and her conversation meanders, Bridget’s captivation with a particular scream queen is at first cute, later replaced a more tangible romantic interest.

Then there’s a minister’s son (Simon Sweeney) with a fascination for figures from mythology – Greek and Irish – who’s more anxious about ruining his parents’ reputations than exploring how to improve his own wellbeing. His diffident encounters with a gay farming lad (Christopher Grant) allow the audience’s minds to race ahead before facing the frustrations that the plot places in their way.

Meanwhile Helen faces the loss of her step-kids due to the so-called “doubtful morals” running amok under her roof. There are no lazy stereotypes, and director Paula McFetridge makes sure that these are characters you can start to care about. The initial phone-in format morphs to some in-person conversations which allow the cast to develop their characters. A couple of lengthy monologues, a musical montage to show time passing, and a side of stage canoodle at one point (which almost went unnoticed due to the head of a tall man in front of me) add less to the overall satisfaction of the production.

Montague’s script neatly comes full circle by the end. Like books written to celebrate an organisation, the dramatization of a real-world organisation is always less crazy and left-field than a playwright left with a totally blank page and imaginative freedom. Cara-Friend callers, staff and volunteers will see and hear themselves in the story: front and centre-stage, not sidelined or hidden away.

Three of the cast are veterans of Kabosh and Montague’s A Queer Céilí at the Marty Forsythe which was a much louder and brasher affair. Callings is a much more mellow production.

Callings does well to never feel too worthy or too laboured. It celebrates rurality, villages and towns as much as the brighter lights of Belfast. You learn a lot – or alternatively you are reminded – about the discrimination, threat and ill treatment that the LGBT community lived through in the 1970s and 1980s. And you begin to wonder just how much has changed?

Kabosh’s Callings runs at the Lyric Theatre until Thursday 17 February and will then tour through Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin, Derry (Friday 18 February as part of the Sole Purpose Festival of Theatre for Social Change), Market Place Theatre, Armagh (Saturday 19); The Ardhowen, Enniskillen (Tuesday 22), Strule Arts Centre, Omagh (Wednesday 23), An Táin Arts Centre, Dundalk (Friday 25), The Riverside Theatre, Coleraine (Saturday 26). 

Photo credit: Johnny Frazer

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