Basra Boy

John Travers in 'Basra Boy' by Rosemary Jenkinson, presented by Brassneck Theatre Company.

John Travers in 'Basra Boy' by Rosemary Jenkinson, presented by Brassneck Theatre Company.

Distressed brickwork on a grey-russet backdrop, tattered Union bunting draped slant-wise across it, and a battered city council wheelie-bin stage-centre: this is Rosemary Jenkinson’s East Belfast, and a Michelangelo fresco it decidedly isn’t. It spawns Speedy - teenage Orange fluter, smack-head, and king of “the oul swagger”. He stalks the streets with sidekick Stig, shooting up, shooting off, and generally raising Cain together. Stig eventually decides to “play the big man” (as Speedy puts it), joins the British Army (as many fluters do in reality), and is whisked off to Afghanistan to fight another’s battle.

At the heart of this in many ways coruscating take on contemporary working-class Protestant culture is the remarkable performance of the young Belfast actor John Travers, who holds the stage alone for eighty minutes, with a single interval. It’s a relentlessly dynamic, intense, and frequently very funny piece of acting, as he apes a range of local characters (the irascible Road Marshall of Speedy’s flute band, the sozzled British Army colonel the lads turn to for wound-dressing purposes, Speedy’s long-suffering “personal development manager” at the day centre), slingshotting himself from one dizzy escapade to another, and wrestling the wheelie-bin into submissive service as a bar counter, a desk-top, or a lambeg drum for whacking.

Travers has a sharp director in Tony Devlin, and wonderful material to work with: Rosemary Jenkinson lives in East Belfast herself, and her script bucks and bridles with the jagged, flinty street-inflections of the area, its anarchically inventive neologisms, its jabbing wit and glinting gallows humour. The writing is intricately contoured rhythmically, tracing the febrile vacillations of Speedy’s mood and emotions. It flows beautifully, and has a beguilingly poetic quality without ever betraying its gruff, demotic origins.

Are Stig and Speedy victims? They are - but not of Loyalist band culture, which, if anything, gives them something relatively structured to belong to, channelling their unruly teenage instincts, and bringing moments of epiphany to lives which are persistently drab and spare of interest. It’s the fluter’s status as cannon fodder that Jenkinson objects to. Stig has his left leg blown off in a firefight, and is invalided back to Belfast, changed for ever. (“His mind, like”, as Speedy puts it.) Dysfunctional parenting also features. Speedy’s Mum flicks him “a measly, poxy tenner” to disappear while she romances her latest squeeze for the evening. Of Speedy senior there is, predictably, nary a mention. These themes transcend the narrow particularities of East Belfast, making Basra Boy a work of sharp contemporary significance.

It’s a local note that’s struck, though, at the play’s potentially contentious conclusion, where Speedy, now “lookin sharpers” and working in the dole office disability section, appears to jettison his Loyalist heritage. “We are free of it now,” he says, apostrophising Stig’s blind-drawn bedroom window. “The Boyne is dead, it’s just me and you.”

For some, that message will be anathema, as will the conjunction of Speedy’s powder-snorting habit with his recreational fluting activities. Others will feel the play’s ending represents release, the freeing of an individual from the social and cultural shackles which threatened to choke his life off before it properly started, a chink of light illuminating the dark tunnel of recent sectarian history.

What’s clear is that Basra Boy is a brave and rivetingly thought-provoking piece of writing, asking difficult questions without glibly spoon-feeding any of the easy, politically-correct answers. It transfers from its Irish premiere at the Féile an Phobail to the inaugural East Belfast Arts Festival in September, and is eminently worthy of attention.

Terry Blain

  • Review
  • Theatre

Basra Boy by Rosemary Jenkinson

6 - 9 August, 2012

Produced by Brassneck Theatre Company
In Roddy McCorley Social Club, Belfast

Directed by Tony Devlin

Set Design: Niall Rea

Sound: Justin Yang

Lighting: Niall Cullin

With: John Travers


Presented as part of the 2012 Féile an Phobail; Basra Boy will also be presented as part of the East Belfast Arts Festival on 5/6 Sept, 2012.