Reginald Theatre, May 15


Remember when humour and bad taste were allowed to share spittle in the same mouth? David Ireland does. The Belfast playwright has his characters spewing countless lines that leave you unsure whether laughing isn’t a little naughty. Yet not laughing is impossible, because what they’re saying is so damned funny and provocative. Ireland’s secret is to satirise his three characters with affection, even as they come to find each other’s behaviour or perspectives repugnant.

Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Jeremy Waters and Brian Meegan. All photos: Richard Farland.

Lee Carver (Brian Meegan) is an English director who has cast Oscar-winning US actor Jay Conway (Jeremy Waters) in a new play by Ulster playwright Ruth Davenport (Harriet Gordon-Anderson). The three assemble the night before rehearsals are due to begin, and, in the finest comic tradition, Ireland makes them credible and caricatured simultaneously. Initially Jay is the grotesque, quizzing Leigh about whom he would rape if someone held a gun to his head. No, there are no sacred cows in Ireland’s play, and points of view – notably identity politics – are both championed and mercilessly lampooned.

Being from Ulster, Ruth considers herself British, while English Leigh insists she’s really Irish, and Jay, who describes himself as “Irish Catholic” (but has never been to Ireland) is appalled to discover that what he calls the best script he’s read in 10 years is actually endorsing pro-Unionist violence. With the play’s season having sold out thanks to Jay’s fame, Leigh must try to massage star and playwright into positions of mutual accommodation, even as the gulf between them resembles a bomb crater. Everyone’s flaws dwarf their virtues, with Ireland saving some of his most biting satire for the men’s ersatz-feminist patronising of Ruth. Indeed her potential to fight back hasn’t occurred to them until she declares war, her finger on the Twitter trigger.

Shane Anthony’s production for the ever-consistent Outhouse Theatre is impeccably cast. Waters summons all the swaggering braggadocio of an actor who always carries his Oscar with him so he can confront disbelievers with his “truth”. Waters makes him loud, brash, dim-witted, very funny and physically dominant, while not entirely obviating the possibility that he might be a vaguely talented actor, even if his attempted Ulster accent is a fingernail on Ruth’s blackboard, or, as she puts it, “like a Belfast Dick Van Dyke”.

Meegan revels in Leigh’s smug self-satisfaction as a superior intellect obliged to tolerate the boorish American and delusional Ulster princess: variants of the child-artist, after whom he must clean up if the show is to go on. Gordon-Anderson is equally compelling as a woman who refuses to fit snugly into other people’s boxes. Not only is she British rather than Irish, she’s pro-Tory and pro-Brexit. Initially flattered by the big star’s interest in her work, she quickly sees through him and through Leigh’s willingness to castrate her work to keep the star reflecting sufficiently brightly in his own mirror. Gordon-Anderson makes Ruth both pert and reticent, so the men don’t see the scale of her ire until it’s too late.

Yet Ireland has unsatisfactorily resolved his own play, and Anthony and fight choreographer Tom Dashwood’s staging of the climax doesn’t aid the cause. Perhaps we were geared for gratuitous violence by the rape discussion and Tarantino references, but when it comes it still feels like a lame black-humour punchline and cheap way out. Yet the design elements are as excellent as the performances, and nine-tenths of this tonally unique play is exceptional.

Until May 29.