Breathing Water

Chatterbox Productions present 'Breathing Water' by Raymond Scannell. Photo: Eilise McNicholas

Chatterbox Productions present 'Breathing Water' by Raymond Scannell. Photo: Eilise McNicholas

"Fear death by water" is one of the most chilling of the 434 lines in TS Eliot’s 'The Waste Land', among whose gallery of colourful characters is the clairvoyante Madame Sosostris, the wisest woman in Europe. She pulls from her tarot pack the card of the drowned Phoenician Sailor and instructs the poem’s narrator to beware of the watery fate suffered by the handsome mariner Phlebas.

The central conceit of Raymond Scannell’s award-winning play Breathing Water echoes that warning. A consuming phobia haunts the all too short life of sensitive, aptly-named Jonah (Chris Grant), frequently rendering him an outsider among his friends and preventing him from forming lasting loving relationships. Here, however, his terror of water has emerged not through the mystery of the tarot cards but at the hands of a sadistic Christian Brother, in punishment for Jonah neglecting his homework.

Chatterbox ProductionsAs befits a first play by a writer, who was still a student at the time of its premiere eleven years ago, Breathing Water is a heaven-sent vehicle for young, aspiring companies. In tone and content it is raw, brash and in-your-face, the writing a wild mixture of flinty poetry and pungent street talk. It picks up the mantle thrown down by Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs for Corcadorca back in 1996, blending the cadences of the Cork accent into elements of its burgeoning urban youth culture to create a unique vocabulary in a world accessible only by the initiated.

It is here receiving its first staging in Northern Ireland courtesy of Chatterbox Productions, one of a new generation of companies starting to make their mark in Belfast. The time is long overdue. Pioneering independents like Tinderbox, Prime Cut, Kabosh, Big Telly and Replay have been in existence for twenty-odd years, closely followed by the likes of Bruiser, Aisling Ghear and Cahoots NI. At last, new blood is starting to flow in and, as with companies like Rough Magic and Druid, the universities are the melting pot of young talent. Following in the footsteps of Tinderbox, the movers and shakers behind Chatterbox are graduates of Queen’s University Belfast’s drama programme.

Under Eilise McNicholas’ nicely paced and imaginative direction, the references to Scannell’s native Cork have been replaced by Northern equivalents and the cast of four have been given leave to deliver the lines in their own assorted voices. Such is the raucous power of the text and its portrayal of the universal preoccupations of successive generations of city kids – music, black humour, drink, sex, clubbing, popping pills, hanging out, having a good time – it is a piece which can work in any urban setting anywhere in the world.

The opening is visually striking: three figures – Comic (Seamus O’Hara), Carrie (Tripti Tripuraneni) and Sophie (Bronagh McFeely) – are perched on or stretched across a blue-lit, metallic scaffolding set, blankly eyeballing the audience. Through a series of grainy projected segments, we catch a glimpse of them at home and at play and immediately gain little insights into their back stories, as reflected in Comic’s grimacing, bloodied face, Carrie’s knowing sophistication and Sophie’s heartbroken stare. And then, through ripples of water, up comes Jonah, spluttering and gasping for air. Through these images, all four will remain forever young, long after the tragedy which will befall one of them.

Chatterbox ProductionsOver the course of a brisk 50 minutes, the cast rips through an assortment of characters of all ages, swapping roles and genders in the blink of an eye, without once leaving the stage – much in the style of early Bruiser productions. The male personae register as stronger and far more interesting and the excellent O’Hara does a particularly sound job, morphing from menacing drug dealer and violent thug to wise-cracking buddy and pathetic wannabe rapper. Grant is an appealing presence as Jonah, handling Scannell’s verbal deluge with confidence and bringing a real heart-stopping sense of panic to the scenes of his childhood abuse and a terrifying trip to the beach with his pals. When handed a script as dense and intense as this, however, precise enunciation and vocal projection are absolute essentials and, in these respects, Tripuraneni and, particularly, McFeely fall a little short, in the process diluting the significance of their respective storylines.

This bold rites-of-passage play will always emerge triumphant from a competent production. But for all that this is a perfectly creditable realisation, one can’t help wishing that Chatterbox had followed its natural instincts and really let rip, given full voice to the thrilling range of vocal possibilities offered in the text, cranked up the great soundtrack to the max and been a little less... polite.

Jane Coyle is a Belfast-based freelance arts journalist and critic, who also contributes to The Irish Times, The Stage, Culture Northern Ireland and BBC Radio Ulster.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Breathing Water by Raymond Scannell

9-11 February, 2012

Produced by Chatterbox Productions
In Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast

Directed by Eilise McNicholas

With: Chris Grant, Bronagh McFeely, Seamus O’Hara, Tripti Tripuraneni