Saturday, October 29, 2022

Big Man – bravura performance by Tony Flynn in Paul McVeigh’s new play (Lyric Theatre until 13 November as part of Belfast International Arts Festival) #BIAF22

Big Man is Paul McVeigh’s first play for 20 years, and marks his return to theatre after a career that morphed into comedy before shifting towards short fiction and the publication of his award-winning debut novel The Good Son in 2015.

Big Man is also the moniker given to the 50-something narrator by the lad, half his age, who catches his eye and shakes his soul in a Belfast nightclub after a fallow decade free from love. The first twenty minutes – the strongest and most climactic act – deals with their meeting (“the future came towards me, pint in hand”), greeting and the journey home from The Spaniard that night. The precision of the landmarks and street names conjures up the route.

Life can’t all be Dusty Springfield and Kate Bush, so the second act skips through the months that follow. The physical fissures in Tracey Lindsay’s floating set are soon linked to the cracks that form in the relationship between Big Man and ‘himself’. A glitterball hangs above a dark hole in one quadrant of the stage: the former spins when we’re in a nightclub; the latter allows actor Tony Flynn to sit down, though this symbolic dark heart oddly isn’t where he heads when times are most obviously bleak. The thrust stage keeps the audience very close to the performer, easily heard even when his back is turned. James McFetridge’s razor-sharp lighting adds a real sense to drama to the propless performance.

The final scenes interrogate the conclusion of the relationship, and a beautifully ambiguous ending leaves as much room for hope as it does for doubt. I’m sure there was a debate in the rehearsal room about the line which finally gives a name to himself, but I’ll come out firmly on the side of being disappointed that detail was revealed.

Flynn is in his acting element as the vulnerable, self-preserving himself, and is master of McVeigh’s unforgiving script. The rapt audience sit in total silence – a rarity for post-pandemic theatre where the stalls are now full of chit chat as if watching a boxset on a sofa at home – as the actor guides them through the Gobbins-like twists and scary turns of Big Man’s time with himself.

Director Patrick J O’Reilly’s has an eye for small movements – the rolling of an eye or shifting of weight on a foot – which keeps everyone’s attention on the storyteller even before Flynn begins to pound around the tectonic plates of the set. Stuart Robinson’s sound effects are kept to a minimum with a subdued sonic palette, reminiscent of science fiction cinema.

At times, the script feels closer to a novel than a play, particularly in the opening scenes when adjectives and vivid descriptors rain down on the swollen script like a waterfall of cornflakes dropping out of a family-sized cereal box and landing in a generously proportioned Denby stoneware bowl. Comedy helps embrace the necessarily racy moments that make Big Man sound authentic and the audience are tickled by the mention of ‘lumbering’ and the apt comparisons of gay culture with straight experiences. Though the “the hairs on my neck stood up like little erections” and “we created a new language through touch” are a bit Mills & Boon. There’s a sense throughout the whole middle section that Chekhov’s deadly gun has been cocked but never ends up being fired.

Big Man is the story of a relationship, layered on top of an analysis of vulnerability, loss and the difficulty to find and sustain love. The play’s premiere run at the Lyric Theatre continues until 13 November, part of the theatre’s season of new writing, and presented as part of Belfast International Arts Festival. Check out the preview post from a few weeks ago to find out what other treats the festival is serving up between now and 6 November.

Photo credit: Ciaran Bagnall.

Enjoyed this review? Why click on the Buy Me a Tea button!

No comments: