Friday, March 04, 2022

Friday Plays Recovered – The Bonefire by Rosemary Jenkinson

About six years ago, playwright Rosemary Jenkinson mentioned The Bonefire in a conversation, her first play that was staged by Rough Magic Theatre Company in the Project Arts Centre in Dublin but had never been produced in Northern Ireland. I bought a copy, and each time I’ve read the script, I’ve marvelled at the sparky dialogue, the uncompromising characters, and the totally unfiltered writing.

Jenkinson’s Billy Boy, was staged at the EastSide Arts Festival last year. It gives space to loyalist concerns and worldviews. An outsider adds a critique of bonfire culture. But it’s still tame in comparison with The Bonefire which pulls no punches with its dark humour and its portrayal of sinister aspects of the build-up to the Eleventh Night.

The Bonefire still hasn’t enjoyed its first Northern Ireland production, but selected scenes have at least now been read through. Gerard McCabe has organised a series of informal readings – Friday Plays Recovered – from plays by Northern Ireland writers that have never been staged in a home theatre.

Upstairs in The American Bar at Friday teatime, five actors under Gerard McCabe’s direction treated the teatime punters to the story of what happened when a couple of off-duty civil servants got involved in the Annadale Embankment bonfire, as witnessed from the home of siblings Leanne and Tommy.

Despite the blood seeping into her carpet, Kerri Quinn’s fabulously flirtatious Leanne is quite taken with good looking new boy Davey (Matthew Forsythe) who really doesn’t know where to look. Brother Tommy (Matthew McElhinney) is fighting to be respected as the tough guy at the bonfire site, while Warren’s twitching antennae (Gerard McCabe) are telling him something isn’t quite right. And then shapeshifting Jane (Siobhan Kelly) arrives to distract Davey from his bonfire erection and protection.

It’s clear from early on in the raucous script that the worst behaviour in and around the preparations for the Eleventh Night are fuelled by alcohol and drugs, not sectarianism. If the bonfire is described as a “symbol of strength”, those building this fictional one are weak and somewhat self-destructive, even before the temperature rises towards a potentially explosive conflagration.

Not all is as it seems. Have the UDA really eliminated sexual assault in the area like they say? Does agoraphobic clean-freak Leanne’s deep tan suggest she wants to get out more? And are Tommy, Jane and Davey all capable of atrocities they’d prefer not to speak of?

It sounds serious, but The Bonefire is riddled with laughs and wordplay, as well as deep intakes of breath as the playwright puts truly unspeakable statements into the mouths of the characters, and lets the chaos unravel. Nail-biting theatre with a real punch. A joy to finally be able to hear the words out loud for the first time, and get a taste for how the cast might interact. As Warren would say, “Schweet”.

There was a time that The Bonefire could have triggered a riot or an angry protest … and perhaps it still would. I can but hope that the script will yet be picked up and fully staged locally. Until then, the Friday Plays Recovered treatment will be given to Abbie Spallen’s Strandline (11 March), followed the next week by Gary Mitchell’s The Force of Change (18 March).

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