Thursday, March 28, 2024

This Sh*t Happens All the Time – invisible and vulnerable yet seeking to be safe and recognised (Grand Opera House until Saturday 30 March)

Amanda Verlaque’s autobiographical monologue has lost none of its shock and potency in this latest production. This Sh*t Happens All the Time relates to her experience as a university student, falling in love and receiving a death threat for her trouble when her relationship unexpected turns into a prickly ménage à trois. It’s a tale of male violence, police distrust, invisibility and vulnerability.

It is rare to see three different versions of the same play. But it’s a treat when it happens to discover how different directors in different venues with a different cast can use the same script but adapt the tone and throw light in different places.

The original 2019 Outburst Arts Festival outing was a rehearsed reading in a packed Black Box’s Green Room. Paula McFetridge directed a vibrant Nicky Harley whose accents and mannerisms completely held the audience’s attention.

The play returned as part of Imagine! Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics this time last year in the Lyric Theatre studio, set up with a wide thrust stage and seating on three sides. Rhiann Jeffrey directed a very stylish and immediate production, starting with Caoimhe Farren’s sharp green jumpsuit. Garth McConaghie’s big soundscape blasted club tunes into scenes. Sarah Jane Shields’ powerful and atmospheric lighting clearly delineated the scenes and even created a propless university quad that Caoimhe could pace around.

This latest production couldn’t be more different. The neon sign is all that remains. The tiered seating in the Grand Opera House studio looks down on a thin sliver of stage: the audience feels much closer to the action than the thrust layout and more voluminous wooden floor of the Lyric. Nicky Harley is back – wearing a crumpled denim jumpsuit. Rhiann Jeffrey creates an atmosphere that this time is much more retrospective: a woman looking back at the awful events in her past rather than flashbacks to being in the moment. Everything is striped back. The musical cues are gone: Harley hums a few tunes when they’re needed for the script. If anything the simpler lighting is too bland: the changes don’t often appreciably help alter the mood.

“A short haircut and dungarees doth not a dyke make” still gets a laugh every time. Harley jerks in and out of poses and her hands fidget differently as she expertly switches characters. If you’re of a certain age then it’s a joy to be taken back to memories of Smokey Joe’s and Larry’s Piano Bar. I would have been passing through the Queen’s University quad as a student around the same time. But the moments of nostalgia are quickly pushed aside by Harley’s vivid portrayal of a young woman who sought safety and acknowledgement but was faced with coercive control, threats of violence and concealment.

No matter the production, the first moment of real hope and recognition comes in the shape of a university tutor who sees past his student’s flimflam excuses. Your eyes will well up at the picture of human connection that values this young woman. And you’ll think about today’s queer community and the intimidation and physical violence some still face. And you’ll wonder whether the police are more approachable and take hate crime more seriously today. And you’ll realise that much has changed, yet the same dangers still exist.

Verlaque’s This Sh*t Happens All the Time and Replay Theatre’s Mirrorball are almost companion pieces. While their local connection means they particularly resonate with Northern Ireland audiences, their universal themes of fear and hope should speak to audiences abroad.

This current run finishes in the Grand Opera House on Saturday 30 March.

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