Saturday, November 02, 2019

Lyric Theatre’s New Playwrights Showcase – Funny Story (Clare Monnelly) and Bug Eyed (Ross Wylie) #BIAF19

Rehearsed readings of new work are fabulous occasions. Theatres should probably charge more for them than full productions. There is a rich variety of form, with freedom to experiment. There are none of the constraints of having to work around the set, hit particular cues to sync up with lights and sound. Instead, standing behind lecterns, actors dresses in black can inhabit previously unseen characters and bring their stories to life. Your imagination fills in everything else, often leaving striking memories lingering for years that cannot be forgotten.

With brand new work being heard in public for the first time, the ending is unknown, and the process of watching the play, or the scenes from a work in progress, requires much more active – and rewarding – listening than attending a well-known work. Any scrappiness in the text or design is as much a sign of potential as weakness. This is what the audience sign up to for the privilege of sneaking a look at early works.

Back for the third year as part of Belfast International Arts Festival, the Lyric’s New Playwrights Showcase has produced readings of six writers’ work, two at a time, over three evenings. The playwrights have been working with the Lyric’s literary manager Rebecca Mairs over six months.

The showcases are always a treat, and I’m always distraught when I can’t make it to all of the shows. Hopefully, Clare McMahon’s Gap Year and Sarah Gordon’s Road will be back on stage as a full production in the coming months and years, along with Rían Smith’s Broken Light and Annie Keegan’s Bodysnatching.

Friday night’s showcase began with Clare Monnelly’s study in bodily autonomy. Funny Story is a genuinely hilarious 55-minute performance quickly built up to its “unexpecting” reveal as a couple in their 30s found themselves plunged into a tumultuous evening of grappling with questions about starting a family. In the middle of this immaculate confusion, they circle around how to articulate their previously unvoiced fears, unearth insecurities with an increasingly sense of wild abandon, all the while rotating through different emotions like a fruit machine whose handle has been pulled.

Writer Monnelly plays 32-year-old Kate opposite Richard Clements who steps into the shoes of her slightly older boyfriend Jason, while Laura Hughes stands in the middle like a heavenly referee. With a touch of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett about Hughes’ intonation, she yells “pause!” at intervals to keep things get out of hand, before her dilemma-posing presence is revealed to the confounded couple, bringing a further level of honesty to proceedings. Kudos to Monnelly for her Olivier Award winning retching.

While the accelerated action is quite science fiction, the playful exploration of relationships and how well we know our partners, and how easily we avoid difficult topics is universal. The writing is smart and the dialogue is sparky. The phased reveal is well executed, and director Patrick J O’Reilly never allows the hysteria to get out of control. It’s sufficiently mad and engrossing that a Radio 4 audience could be entertained by it on a Saturday afternoon. And if it translates into a stage play, I’ll certainly be back to see how the narrator/overseer role is squeezed into the apartment set.

After the interval, the action switched to Ross Wylie’s Bug Eyed. The writer plays office worker, Bug, who is on still buzzing after a particularly intoxicating weekend of chemsex partying in the grubbier parts of Glasgow while celebrating the royal wedding. The enunciation of his stuttered lines helps create a fabulously well sketched character, while Patrick McBrearty throws himself into the multiple roles and mannerisms of office boss Gary, Bug’s mother, father, ex partner’s friend Kate, and many more.

Words fly out of Wylie’s mouth at such a fast pace that it feels they may be about to trip over each other. It certainly captures the sense of being as high as an over-stimulated kite. Yet Bug is always the anti-hero, a little disgusted at his own behaviour, always in avoidance, and quite unpleasant to know. My sympathy in the audience was firmly with McBrearty’s family of characters, who constantly have to weave through the chaotic wake behind self-centred and somewhat destructive Bug.

Dramaturgically, the unhurried disclosure of the motivation for some of Bug’s excesses are maturely scripted, while the flashback-laden timeline is secure enough that the “hour 48” signposts seem unnecessary. Some of the stylistic ‘footnote’ interruptions could be further trimmed. The shadow of Trainspotting inevitably looms over this original story of sweat, lube, smoke and death in Glasgow. The act of glamorising drug use carries with it the responsibility to work extra hard to make a wider point. As a life spinning out of control, Bug Eyed is well formed and good craic to listen to. But I do wonder where Bug’s journey will ultimately take him

The final two readings will be performed in the Lyric Theatre at 7pm on Saturday 2 November.

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