Tuesday, August 17, 2021

A Simple Journey (Three’s Theatre Company as part of EastSide Arts Festival)

Do you ever wonder what’s going on inside the heads of other passengers on public transport? What’s the story behind the distressed young woman with the suitcase and the earphones? The other one who intently stares out the window before stabbing text messages to someone? The lad who’s cradling a bag full of empties and looks like he doesn’t want to reach his destination?

While I’m normally team train rather than team bus, the rail timetable back and forth to Dublin rarely suits early morning or late-night jobs, particularly when my journey starts in Lisburn. (That may change when the Knockmore Halt reopens as a park and ride for the Enterprise.) So I’m a big fan of the X1/X2A bus service.

On the rare pre-pandemic occasion that I was down in Dublin to preview a theatre show that was coming to Belfast, booking a seat on the Bus Eireann double decker for the way home was a beautiful luxury, with the chance to sit at one of its tables and hack out a review by the time the red coach had reached Newry or Banbridge. (Spoiler alert: Bus Eireann pulled out of the Belfast-Newry-Dublin route in November 2020 so no more red double decker to work on.)

Three’s Theatre Company’s latest production, A Simple Journey, is set on a bus. And not just any bus. It’s one of the three new hydrogen-fuelled double decker buses. Built by Wrightbus in Ballymena, they’re the first such green vehicles in Ireland.

Other than the USB ports – into which some of the signage suggests you can plug a man with a walking stick – the interior is fairly familiar. So too were some of the passengers when audiences stepped on board and were shown to their seats in Victoria Park on Sunday as part of EastSide Arts Festival.

Hannah (Louise Parker) sits with a suitcase. Her phone battery dies and with it her source of distracting tunes. Suddenly her mind is overrun with thoughts and voices, each attempting to crowd out the others. We can hear all this private chatter through our headphones. It’s gloriously manic, full of pancakes, painting, and the “wile bad time” people give Nadine Coyle! Her opening ten minutes has a good pace of character development as the layers of story are peeled away and we learn why she’s on the bus and what’s driving her agitation.

The Hydro comes to a halt. At least, the sound effects in our ears indicate that it’s stopping: the actual bus is parked with the engine off beside the play area throughout! A woman in a canary yellow jacket hops on and we switch to Deborah’s story (Rachel Murray) of Glider-love, drink, and meaningful encounters with strangers.

The momentum is briefly lost, before a lovely moment when the gawking audience members (“are they all looking at me?”) become part of Deborah’s inner dialogue. Then a stylishly-dressed woman with a red beret hauls Ireland’s largest suitcase onboard to become the foil for a young lad (Conor Cupples) who is nursing a hangover and predicting a tactical chunder. His mind is the most surreal, with musings are filled with vivid humour as his imagination runs wild in his “own wee pocket of time” on the bus.

Themes intersect the three stories which were written by each actor. Anxiety, change, and the consequences of putting other people’s needs above their own. Colm G Doran’s scope for direction is somewhat stymied by the constraints of COVID and staying seated on a (supposedly moving) bus. Stuart Robinson has more room to experiment with his sound design that adds rich detail and allows the audience’s imagination to enter into the spirit of the stories.

A Simple Journey is well executed. Perhaps not as profound as some of Three’s Theatre Company’s previous work, but it does once again demonstrate that they are adept at site-specific theatre and sophisticated soundscapes delivered through personal headphones. Funded by Arts & Business NI, this extension of their trademark concept works well out on the open road and would be repeatable across the city at other times.

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