Royal Court Theatre
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs
For a limited time, the Royal Court is making available on YouTube its 2016 production of David Ireland's shocking but often hilarious play that features a real tour de force performance from Stephen Rea at the heart of it.
It's one of those plays where you're never sure what's real and what is in the head of central character Eric, played by Rea, a middle-aged, proud Ulsterman from the affluent East Belfast street after which the play is named. However it is framed as a therapy session with Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo's Bridget, which initially confuses him as he isn't expecting a doctor to be so young, female... and black. But he isn't racist, he insists; his embarrassing, almost Victorian racial stereotyping is explained as coming from ignorance as he comes from a place where he didn't see a black person until he was in his 40s, and that was on holiday.
He also claims he doesn't hate the Catholics, but this claim rings hollow amongst the bile that he spouts about them and everything they stand for, to the extent that he insists that, as an Ulster Unionist, he isn't Irish: he's British. Only the 'Fenians' are Irish—a term he insists on his right to use and which, despite his claims, he is clearly using pejoratively.
This mild-mannered but fiercely proud Protestant, brought up with the certainty of blinkered beliefs, is now suffering some sort of existential crisis and appears to be having a breakdown in the flashbacks with his family—wife Bernie (Andrea Irvine) and daughter Julie (Amy Malloy) with her new-born daughter—who are concerned about his change in behaviour. He then becomes obsessed that his granddaughter is Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams—not just like him but actually is him, in a bizarre metaphysical 'Fenian' plot to infiltrate good Protestant families. His actions at first to confirm this are shocking but still funny, but then there are some scenes with a pram on stage that look like they may be about to echo an earlier Royal Court production from half a century earlier—which got them into a bit of trouble.
The play—which debates identity and loyalty to a place, nationality or cause and how easy it is to paint others with false stereotypes when you shut yourself away from them, in an insightful way—is often laugh-out-loud funny, but turns towards the end into something more horrific, but the laughs don't stop entirely and the terrible consequences have been earned by the set-up of the plot. Some of the more serious, contemplative moments do feel a touch too long, but that may be a consequence of watching on a small screen rather than in the theatre.
The intimacy of the small Upstairs space translates well to the small screen for the most part, although the occasional gimmicky camera angle and some inserted shots on location in Belfast I found distracting and couldn't see that they added anything meaningful.
In Vicky Featherstone's tightly directed, almost thriller-like production, Rea's performance is stunning from beginning to end, but he is supported by a very strong cast; not mentioned above is Chris Corrigan as wannabe Unionist terrorist Slim, who joined the UVF during the peace process and so never got to murder any Catholics—and who may or may not be real.
It's well worth catching while you can for free, but be ready for an ending that is far from happy and for opinions that are hard to take not to be overturned by rational argument.
Reviewer: David Chadderton