Theatre Review: East Belfast Granny at the EastSide Arts Festival, Belfast
East Belfast Granny
Written by Fintan Brady
Director: Fintan Brady
Cast: Luna Kalo
East Side Arts Festival
Ballymac Friendship Centre, Belfast
8 August 2018
Watching East Belfast Granny in the colourful heart of East Belfast just off the Newtownards Road, and having watched East Belfast Boy at the Strand Arts Centre the previous evening, it was ever more apparent that Fintan Brady's work on his East Belfast series of plays is not so much entrenched in the community as a representative force of voices rising out of it, seeking expression and finding a vital outlet for it in community art projects such as this. For an outsider it can be difficult to relate to those voices and dismiss them as being part of the problem, but Brady's working methods and treatment highlights that they are not so much the problem as the victims of deeper problems in our society.
The East Belfast Granny might in fact have the most issues to deal with, since not only does she have her own life to try and keep on track - if she ever really had control of it in the first place - but she has her family's problems to deal with as well, seeing the problems of one generation passed down to the next with no signs of any way out. Watching East Belfast Boy the previous night, I considered whether there might be a connection between this play and Davy's granny, who he talks about being a psychic and having to deal with the pain of a brother in the army dying in a car crash in Colchester, but there's no strict family connection here between Sarah and Davy. Not that we know of anyway.
On the other hand, Fintan Brady's method of writing involves workshopping with people from all parts of the community in East Belfast and some of the stories that find his way into his plays come from a variety of different people, Sarah and Davy being composite characters drawn from many people and conversations, so there could indeed be a bit of Davy's granny in Sarah. What is important however is that the stories they tell are exceptional but more common then you might think; they are problems that we can all relate to, if not directly, at least from the experiences of close family members, friends and neighbours.
So, Sarah the East Belfast Granny is not some grey-haired old lady sitting in a rocking chair and doing her knitting, but still a relatively young woman in her 40s and as such she is a mother and grandmother who has the weight of a life's experience bearing down on her that she is ill-equipped to deal with. She's not the psychic of Davy's granny then, but she has had out-of-body experiences with an addiction to prescription drugs and is no stranger to the experience of early unexpected deaths in her close immediate family.
Sarah's way of expressing the issues that affect her are very different from East Belfast Boy Davy's manic behaviour, but in many ways she has fallen into similar life traps. Pregnant at 19, she looks back on opportunities that have passed her by, recalling the thrill and excitement of being an 'entrepreneur' selling burgers on the night of the new millennium, making £7,000 and blowing it all on a luxury holiday. She's seen what life could be and recalls that little success fondly as one of those magical moments that now seem like a dream, but the reality is that her path in life has already been predetermined.
Sarah's life is not a dream, even if it might sometimes feel like she is walking on air and detached from reality, focussed only on getting through the next few hours until she can take another pill to get her through the next few. It's not so much a living dream as a nightmare. Like Davy searching for the line in his music, she's trying to find something to cling to that will give her life shape and direction, and that ought to be family, but it also brings with it conflicting pressures of money worries, dealing with her partner in prison, looking after her children and her grandchildren, and each of them bring their own problems. She only wants the best for her family, but can see that the choices they make are limited by their environment and social background, and their lives are also on a predetermined course towards a dead end, or a bad end.
None of this is made quite that explicit in Brady's play. East Belfast Granny is in fact even more ambitious than East Belfast Boy in how it lets its poetic imagery and fragmented composite approach place the burden on the audience to interpret and fill in the blanks. Sarah seems unable to follow a story through to its conclusion, whether through being incapable of holding thoughts together or it could be just that some stories don't have any endings, or not any endings you want to revisit. The writing is consequently more meaningful and real when you have to supply your own experience, or the awareness you might already have of these issues from the press and the local news.
What I found just as impressive as Fintan Brady's approach and just as important as Partisan Production's close community work, were the theatrical production values of East Belfast Granny. It's much more than a one-woman show, although Luna Kalo inevitably shoulders the burden of the work and successfully brings the audience into the reality of Sarah's life without any special pleading, but even within the intimate confines of the Ballymac Friendship Centre, Sarah's world is opened out with projections, moving images, effective lighting and a live music accompaniment. On its own and in the totality of the East Belfast Trilogy, this is an impressive and important expression of voices that otherwise have no other presence or outlet, but need to be heard.