Thursday, March 24, 2022

This Sh*t Happens All The Time – a playwright wrestles control of her story back from a hateful bully (Lyric Theatre and #imaginebelfast until 2 April)

Led into the Lyric Theatre’s studio space via an unfamiliar door, the audience are seated on three sides of the floor level stage. A neon light fitting mounted on the brick wall burns with the play’s title: This Sh*t Happens All The Time.

It’s a deeply personal tale of a young woman moving up to university in Belfast, falling in love … and receiving a death threat for her trouble. Back in 2019, I was moved by a reading of an earlier version of the play as part of the Outburst Arts Festival. This full production, two and a bit years, later is no less shocking.

Sarah Jane Shields’ lighting design together with Garth McConaghie’s soundscape creates the entire set: churches, nightclubs, a night-time street, the university quad. It’s so controlled that you often know the location of a new scene before a word is spoken. The opening ten minutes of the show establish the character’s journey into teenage years in the 1980s and onto student life in the early 1990s. A blend of light and sound that almost cocoons the actor is such a treat that its absence (or toned down use) is noticeable with regret in later, more dialogue-heavy, parts of the play.

Amanda Verlaque’s words are brought to life by Caoimhe Farren. The pace varies as she outlines the pleasure of infatuation (where else could love have blossomed than Smokey Joe’s chippy on University Road!), the irritation of becoming a third wheel when a man muscles into her lesbian relationship, and the isolation of having nowhere to turn when verbal threats escalate and violence seems inevitable.

Caoimhe Farren delivers an extraordinary performance, hitting technical and emotional cues, rolling with the audience laughter before being crushed by a man’s jealousy and homophobic bullying. She bounces exchanges and flirtatious glances off nearby audience members in happier times, then becomes more anxious and angry when her chips seem down.

Rhiann Jeffrey’s direction keeps Farren shifting about the space, walking around the circumference of the college quad, sitting against the wall, standing in the stalls, feet away from the audience. The material is never hyped-up or sensationalised: instead, allowing the quiet power of a hateful time remembered to seal its story into the hearts and minds of the audience.

Invisible and in the shadows is where the central character decides they must remain to be safe. She sees no other options. Whether accepting a lad’s hand for slow dance at a teenage disco, or backing away from public displays of affection in Larry’s Piano Bar, it’s the path of least resistance. “I’m ashamed because I brought this on myself.” It’s heart-breaking to hear. It’s not true. But it is her queer experience. Her tutor’s knowing handshake at graduation – a key beat in the performance – widens the tale out beyond one woman’s experience to an entire community who were (and still are) othered. All of which makes the final, assertive showdown more glorious.

Even in 2022, just weeks after the Protection from Stalking Bill completed its passage through the Northern Ireland Assembly – it’s currently awaiting Royal Assent – the audience know that Verlaque’s autobiographical play isn’t just about the 1990s. Harassment, emotional bullying and physical attacks continue to happen … and are so often ignored. 30 years later would the play’s character feel any better about reporting her experiences to the PSNI? Would more allies speak out rather than support in silence? Would her tutor have chosen to be more actively helpful, or would he have still kept himself in the invisible shadows? Where do we each stand?

Developed as a Lyric Theatre Production in association with the Imagine! Festival of Ideas and Politics, This Sh*t Happens All The Time continues until Saturday 2 April. PS: While there isn’t a merchandise stall selling replicas of the costume, fashionable green jumpsuits can apparently be sourced in ASOS!

Photo credit: Carrie Davenport

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