Edge Fest at the MAC Belfast

More than just a showcase for new drama productions by two of Northern Ireland's top theatre companies Tinderbox and Prime Cut, Edge Fest is an attempt to also create theatre that can meaningfully engage with issues that affect the local audience. With three plays and a programme of related events running for a month at the MAC in Belfast, the Edge Fest explores issues relating to male mental health, but it also promises cutting edge that intends to "take us to the very edge of who we are".

The Man Who Fell To Pieces
Written and Directed by Patrick J O'Reilly
Cast: Shaun Blaney, Roisin Gallagher, Maria Connolly, Patrick Buchanan
The MAC, Belfast
7th February 2018

That claim is taken quite literally in Tinderbox Theatre's The Man Who Fell to Pieces, a delightfully entertaining romp whose absurd surrealism and manic comedy contains a more serious message within it, a message that it nonetheless feels important enough to state explicitly as well as metaphorically.

At the start of The Man Who Fell to Pieces, John is literally and metaphorically in pieces, gathered in a bag on the table in his home where his mother Alice and girlfriend Caroline are concerned about how they are going to put him back together again, as the clingfilm, adhesive and staples are no longer working. Over the course of the play, John - when he manages to get his vocal cords aligned - explains when how this process started. Pressures at work in a call centre, issues with his mother and his absent father, problems committing to his planned wedding to Caroline, all start to take their toll. Despite visible physical deterioration - an ear detaching itself, toes dropping off and his body cracking and disintegrating - John isn't able to talk to his doctor or his family about the problems he is having. Being told to "pull yourself together" isn't really the most helpful advice you can give to a man with John's problems.

Extending the metaphor to a literal representation is a clever way of making an impact, and without having recourse to CGI in a live theatre environment, the Tinderbox crew put all their imagination and resources into creative and amusing ways that give you a physical and visceral sense of John literally cracking up. In the hands of Tinderbox, theatre really is the art of putting things together. Content, form, ideas and technique can all come together brilliantly and imaginatively, literally breaking everything down and then putting it back together again. In case you don't get the message - which is too important to risk letting it overshadowed by clever theatre and laugh-out loud comedy - John steps out of character at the end and takes an authorial voice to explain the impact of depression.

Written and directed by Patrick J O'Reilly, The Man Who Fell to Pieces is theatre at its most creative and vital, a perfect blend of script and performance, metaphor and direct appeal, delivering a serious message through humour, never using technique to just be clever, but to better achieve its goal. This is great theatre that doesn't just break the fourth wall as much as take it apart brick by brick and rebuild it again in front of your eyes, and just as importantly, it doesn't try to hide the cracks.

Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful
Written by John Patrick Higgins
Directed by Rhiann Jeffrey
Cast: Charlie Bonner
The MAC, Belfast
15th February 2018

A theatre festival focussed on depression and mental health can be something of a hard sell, but as sells go they don't come much harder than watching a monologue from a man who has cancer contemplating suicide. No, Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful is not a comfortable watch and it's filled with the ups and downs that you might expect from someone in that position, but the intimate nature of Malachy's discussion of the subject and his intentions has a way of drawing the audience in and really making them consider what it must be like to be in that position. You can be fairly sure that Malachy will make it through, at least on this day that he opens up about it, but the power of the work is that it really does feel touch and go for a while.

Intimacy and identification might be one thing, but in that respect while the play makes you feel grateful that you're on this side of the stage, it also leaves you with a feeling of helplessness as you watch Malachy describe how he arrived at this moment. He has woken up with a selection of favourite nineties music to get him through the next hour, he's prepared himself a last meal, he's had a hot bath running, and he'd determined he's going to end it all today. But first he has a few things to get off his chest.

Some of the incidents related in John Patrick Higgins's monologue script can seem a little rambling and wander off the point, and some of the observations you feel are rather banal, commonplace, unnecessary and beside the point. On the other hand, there's also recognition and familiarity of the how everyday can without warning take a turn for the worse. Accordingly Malachy talks straight, confessional with nothing to hide now as you would expect from a man in his position, where the occasional moment of poetic description is suddenly deflated by the reality of his position.

The unique experience of theatre however transforms Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful into one of those rare plays that genuinely works both ways. When the time comes for Malachy to stop talking and get on with what he feels he has to do and then grants himself that temporary reprieve, you do feel glad and relieved, but most importantly, despite being a hopeless silent witness to what Malachy is going through, Charlie Bonner's sympathetic performance makes you feel that that in some way you've helped and given someone a little bit of hope. Even if it's just by listening. And I think really that is the lesson of Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful.

East Belfast Boy
Written by Fintan Brady
Directed by Emma Jordan
Cast: Ryan McParland
The MAC, Belfast
16th February 2018

Listening is all well and good, but what if there's no way of being able to understand or relate to the kind of problems someone is going through? The oft-used observation that the men don't talk gives a misleading impression that if they opened up a bit more, people could help. More often however truth is that the reason men don't talk is because they don't realise they have a problem, or that they simply lack the ability to put it into words.

In East Belfast Boy, Davy is able to throw out a medical term - Anxiety-based Insomnia - but explaining why he suffers from it and the impact it has on him is harder. In Davy's case, it's not so much listening as observation that should alert any concerned friend or relative that he has a problem, but who is going to care enough to sit down and have a serious chat with a hyperactive and mostly aggressive 21 year-old? One who is hardly going to stay focussed enough to tell you where his problem is, or take it seriously enough without turning everything into a dismissive wise-crack?

Even amidst all the diversions, jokes and taunts, Davy drops a few clues however, and it's a serious problem that is now recognised as being particularly acute in youths from a working-class Protestant background (which Davy being from East Belfast implies). He wasn't encouraged to advance his education, he didn't do well at school, he's never been far outside his own small area except for a trip to Magaluf ("Shagaluf! Know what I'm saying?"), has been with his girlfriend since he was 14 and he now has a small child. But life is great! He can earn enough money to get by in a few "wee jobs" than you or I would make in a week - except when he doesn't - and has plenty of time to indulge in his favourite pastimes, Call of Duty, his beats and his highs. And then come the lows....

Fintan Brady's one-hour, one-act monodrama is a hugely kinetic ride through those highs and lows, a superb blend of social and cultural observation, with accurate and insightful character observation of an inarticulate youth hiding his problems behind bravado, swearing and jokes, using music and drugs to block out feelings. It's not so much what Davy tells you then, as how he behaves and Ryan McParland gives a brilliant performance that is "one hundred and ten percent" in character. He's a whirlwind of frustration and anxiety, sound and fury turning to a wink and a laugh in the blink of an eye. The interaction with the audience demands some improvisational skill, but it's also essential to it purpose. Davy wants to be liked and happy and his squaring up to the audience is his way of looking for reassurance. Or a call for help. This is not just theatre that takes us to the very edge of who we are, but pushes theatre to its very edges too.

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