Edinburgh Fringe 2014
A solo piece of theatre that "based on the true events of Martin Hall’s life. Martin’s GP refers him to a psychologist as he is having trouble sleeping."
Written by playwright Kat Woods, Belfast Boy is based on a true story. Martin can’t sleep and is referred to a professional for help. We join Martin at the first session where the underlying causes of his insomnia unfold through a piece of very direct and physical storytelling. We, the audience, represent the psychiatrist’s chair.
The story begins in early childhood and arrives at the present. What lies in-between is the basis for a powerful piece of solo work. This is a monologue, choreographed to the last twitch and the performance does full justice to a script that pulls no punches, either physically or verbally. Though stories of the “hard life” have been told before in the theatre, this particular production stands out for the precision in the writing and the realisation on stage. One moment we have gentle humour, and the child still present in the struggling adult is shown; the next we are in the tough, uncompromising world of the Falls Road in Belfast and the need to escape in the night or face the barrel of a gun. This is a tale of the troubles of a family in the Troubles of a country.
The script represents a marvellous achievement in narrative flow and authenticity. Declan Perring holds not only his own auto-biographical role as a centrepiece to the story, but also skilfully evokes family, friends and enemies of the character he portrays – “Martin” as he grows quickly towards sixteen years old. We have a story told, almost cartoon-like in places, the well drawn adult cartoons of film noir, but also blended with realism, with intense realism. The actor can bring the story to stillness, allowing us to share his recovery and attempts to deal with truly shattering moments in his life. Then, within a few breaths, we are at breakneck pace and in the midst of action remembered by a soul looking back over his life as if still in the present. Such an utterly committed performance, such a full-hearted commitment, from real tears to real laughter.
This is an outstanding piece of theatre. Sometimes the material feels almost in overload, but it is all delivered so powerfully, yet without any loss of detail and nuance. Every part of the performer’s body, from eyes to quivering lips, to shaking knees, is used to realise the character. I was completely immersed in the story throughout the hour. It isn’t an easy story to hear and watch in places; in other parts its the very essence of coping with Life’s challenges.
Staging is minimal and relies almost totally on the central performance, with a few tightly woven-in lighting and sound cues. Lighting is used simply yet to powerful effect – a night street, or the bare white of a story told with brutal honesty. The actor makes use of his chair as a default storytelling position but also as an occasional prop for different parts of the story. Bare simplicity for a wounded soul bared.
Focus on the performer is never lost. It’s a huge script to learn and deliver because of its physical and verbal detail. Martin is an intense character, reaching out so intensely with his eyes and feelings towards us, the audience-therapist, clutching for meaning, his story slipping out and diverging without intention as memory takes him over and excarnates onto the stage. This is a piece of unravelling theatre and it unravels the audience who bear witness to it. We are told and shown seemingly innocent and innocuous episodes in his life, only for them to be located in much more frightening and archetypal contexts: the brutality of parents and siblings, the desperation to break out of poverty and boredom, and wish to please and be loved, even when we know we are being hurt and abused.
The narrative reveals,unfolds; there is no clunky polemic here, no clumsily loaded political points and messages. The story itself delivers any wider meaning or message we might take away from watching this piece of theatre, from being witnesses to the story. The writer allows a faith in a single told story to create its own broader impact. And impact it surely does.
I think some new ground has been broken here. Many solo shows which deal with autobiographical material concerning abuse tinker too much with the truth of it. Theatrical tricks can get in the way of that truthfulness, accidentally distorting it in the process, romanticising or idealising it. Here we have a brutal directness and the smiles of coping and cover-up that we all attempt in public when trying to hide our rawness underneath. A small mouth movement, a turn of the head, and Martin’s attempts to keep his taboos precious and hidden fail before us and the inner shattering is revealed.
Martin’s story may appear distant from most of us yet I sensed this is a story that will create connection with its audience. We cannot fail to be moved by Martin’s history as ghosts still haunt his present. The only hope offered here is the love that still lives in this Belfast Boy, now grown Belfast boy and the possibility that some healing may be found in the sharing of his story.
I came away deeply moved by this production. I needed time to “process” it and let go of it before sleep. I woke up with it still there, like shadows and a few warmer echoes. This is a very special piece of theatre in an intimate setting. It has to be one of the must see solo shows at the Fringe.