Friday, April 17, 2015

Lally The Scut (Tinderbox Theatre at The MAC until 2 May): tragedy mixed with moments of pantomime and horror.

History repeats itself on a hillside outside a village. Twenty years after Lally was rescued from down a well amidst a swathe of publicity, her son is trapped down the well and is being fed iced fingers lowered down on a fishing line. Lightning doesn’t strike twice, so suspicion and reluctance delay efforts to dig down and rescue the child.

The views of family members (Carol Moore, Michael Condron, Maria Connolly), local councillors (Alan McKee, Vincent Higgins) and construction workers are voiced, along with the reflections of Owen, a world-renowned and well-travelled journalist (Frank McCusker) from the area who gets some of the best dialogue, and the external opinion of his bouncy air-head assistant Gav (Richard Clements).
[Owen] I can’t remember anywhere as insular, bovine and quite, quite joyously repressive as this.

As a play, Lally The Scut probes the dysfunctional legacy that remains in post-conflict Northern Ireland for those of us “born lookin’ round corners”. The rural community is in transition and volatile. Can the townland ever shake off its past?

Up on the hill, digging starts, but the rural community is “in transition” and “volatile” and the groups represented by the golf-playing Community Liaison Officer’s glove puppets (“Colin the Continuity IRA dissident” and “Real IRA Rory”) may not be keen on other people unearthing what they buried during previous digs.

Roisin Gallagher waddles around the stage as pregnant Lally, in a white dress that has been physically and metaphorically sullied by the hillside mud. She endures whatever pain is necessary to keep her son’s rescue on track.

Despite the cast of twelve, between Abbie Spallen’s writing and Michael Duke’s direction, each character is well drawn and interesting, and their mannerisms and traits consistently acted.

Complex characters have secrets in their past. There’s ambiguity and perhaps some have an excuse for their behaviour: did the child who stole other children’s lunches do so because he wasn’t well fed at home? The ex-combatant Fork the Cat (Miche Doherty) is all workshopped out and nearly crosses the line between performance art and torture. Engineering manager (Gerard McCabe) has to manage the risk to the child and the rescuers, with the risk to his reputation.
[Owen] Civilisation comes with a price ... You have to be aware of your global and historical positioning ... People, viewers can become tired ... Especially when there’s the perception that you’re ...

[Lally] Trash.

[Owen] Regional.

Abbie Spallen is like an angry prophetess shouting at us through the dialogue about much of what’s rotten in our society ... starting with the fact that the child at the centre of this drama is never named.
[Owen] The longer it takes the more time we have to find a story.

Revelation is gradual and an incredible number of modern tropes are woven into the story: pop songs, cyberbullying, choosing to be offended.

There are no sacred cows unwilling to be sacrificed: family, church, media and politicians all get chopped off at the knees by the playwright’s satirical pen as she amplifies the failings of society.

Can you make a fast buck out of a child’s fate? What drives media interest in a story and how they prioritise one tragedy over another? To what extend can the church be corrupt, looking for something in return for their blessing? A republican political group is rebranding its rhetoric (“a time of adjustment”) without decommissioning its ability to intimidate. There’s even discomfort in the stalls as fingers are pointed at the audience and we become the unpure throng gathered in the village square.
[Gav] It is lovely and green.

[Owen] So is conjunctivitis.

The less-than-beautiful set could only have been designed by Ciaran Bagnall with stepped grass and muddy levels that thankfully look nothing like Teletubbies. Background sound effects keep the audience connected with the out-of-sight digging, and towards the end a grainy ‘live’ video feed links up the audience and the core cast with the rescue attempt.
[Owen] The good journalist, the diligent entity will find the real story! The story of the story.

Ultimately, Lally The Scut demonstrates that history repeats itself and generation after generation bite the hand that feeds (or rescues) them. The media, church and politicians – not to mention a rogue mother-in-law – repeat past behaviours to try to get the same rewards. And Northern Ireland is perhaps doomed to find itself stuck down a dark well every 20 years.

It’s incredibly well written, and the language is extreme throughout, to the extent that you stop noticing the swearing. Fragments of phrases echo throughout the play which is full of rural vernacular and playful delivery. Well worth picking up a copy of the script for £3 at the venue.

Lally the Scut is a complex, multi-layered play that shocks, challenges and blackly entertains. Tragedy mixed with moments of pantomime and horror. Abbie Spallen shares her dark and sinister imagination (terrorist puppets and that mincer!) and twelve capable actors drag the audience through the stinking mud of institutions and society to disturb us into addressing the rot. I can think of no good reason not to see Tinderbox NI’s production in The MAC between now and the 2 May. Tickets between £12 and £25.

Production photos by Ciaran Bagnall.

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