Theatre Review: East Belfast Boy at the EastSide Arts Festival, Belfast
East Belfast Boy
Written by Fintan Brady
Director: Emma Jordan
Cast: Ryan McParland
East Side Arts Festival
Strand Arts Centre, Belfast
7 August 2018
Fintan Brady's East Belfast Boy played earlier this year at the MAC in Belfast as part of the Edge Fest series of new theatre work highlighting mental health issues relating to men. The play's in-your-face-and-loving-it aggression gradually revealed a more troubling side relating to those issues, and it did so in a strikingly original fashion. Prime Cut's production directed by Emma Jordan is revived now for two performances at the Strand Arts Centre as part of the EastSide Arts Festival before making its way over to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, but for the moment at least the East Belfast Boy is back on home ground.
And, arguably, what the East Belfast Boy has to say and how he says it probably means more when it is reaching out beyond the typical Belfast MAC or Edinburgh Fringe audience and is delivered to an East Belfast audience, and even more so in the current climate when the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly means that there is no one in place to address the serious social issues it raises. Mental health problems however don't recognise class, district or even peace walls in Belfast, but the recognition of the kind of difficulties, pressures and anxieties that lead to this part of the world having one of the highest percentages of young men in socially deprived areas committing suicide is very much a problem that is not only difficult to address, it's hard to recognise under all the false male bravado.
Ryan McParland delivers that kind of bravado which can easily be mistaken for aggression with note perfect observation not just of accent and delivery, but in posture and manner, where an aggressive outburst is quickly followed by a cheeky smile and wink. It's vital that he gives that realistic impression of 20 year old Davy, as Fintan Brady's East Belfast Boy relies very much on Davy establishing a rapport with the audience, scanning them and sizing them up, looking at their lives and wondering how his life compares. He's one hundred and ten percent certain that his life is better than yours, so why does he sometimes feel that something isn't right?
Developed in collaboration with community action groups, Fintan Brady's piece captures the authentic lives and experiences of many young men like Davy, but what it also brilliantly conveys is their inarticulacy and how what they don't tell you can reveal more than what is actually said. That's a tough call for a piece of theatre, but East Belfast Boy relies on more than just words and Ryan McParland's edgy, mercurial and deeply immersive performance. It's boosted by impressive directing from Emma Jordan that measures the highs and lows of the moods, the pacing of revelation (and restless pacing of Davy) and sets it all to a soundtrack by local DJ and producer Phil Kieran.
Kieran's pounding techno beats are surprisingly much more expressive and important to the overall impact of the work than you might imagine. For Davy, the beats are his reality; a line that he can follow, something he can connect with, something that anchors his life into something that feels almost but not quite tangible. It's the other things in his life that Davy isn't able to cope with. 20 years old, with a girlfriend he's known since he was 14 and a young baby girl, his whole family living just around the corner, Davy has never had a chance to 'grow up', whatever that means. He sees other people and wonders how you get there, but isn't sure he wants that either. He know what he likes and it's there in the music, in his DJ-ing, it's here and now with his mates and taking a few drugs to get to that place where everything feels right. But where does reality fit in? Well, everyone in the Stand Arts Centre will have experienced or be aware of that reality.
What the music emphasises is the rhythm of the piece, and it's all in the rhythm, insistent and unchanging, just getting heavier and deeper. Fintan Brady's monologue throws out seemingly random cut-up catchphrases, impressions and thoughts that spring up spontaneously in Davy's mind, many of which make little sense on their own, but cumulatively they build up a picture of a life that is indeed lived in fragments with no consistency or continuity. There's something almost poetic in the language and expression, a kind of street poetry, and that's probably the first time that banter in a broad Belfast accent has been described as poetic. And yet that's what East Belfast Boy does, overturning prejudices and preconceptions, telling us all to look a little deeper.