The Civilisation Game

‘The Civilisation Game’ written and Directed by Tim Loane at the Lyric Theatre. Photos: Steffan Hill

‘The Civilisation Game’ written and Directed by Tim Loane at the Lyric Theatre. Photos: Steffan Hill

In Tim Loane’s previous stage plays, Northern politics loomed large with a capital P. In Caught Red Handed (2002) and To Be Sure (2007) – the so-called ‘comedies of terror’ – he gleefully lanced the bloated self-importance of, respectively, the unionist and republican camps, holding them up to scrutiny, ridicule and scorn. Skilfully executed political satire plays well when the other side is under attack. When it’s your tree that’s being shaken, the fall-out is painful and undignified. But if you’re simply an objective observer, it’s a delicious, win-win situation.

This time around, Loane has turned a cold eye onto politics with a small p, hitting on a target much closer to home. The issues and concerns that bedevil The Civilisation Game (subtitled The Making of a Suburban Myth) are far removed from the bickering of the Assembly Chamber or the hatching of deadly plots in darkened rooms. It is the dubiously discreet charm of the bourgeoisie which here comes under attack, with its maze of grimy little secrets and barely suppressed prejudices, all neatly concealed behind pretty voile curtains and towering leylandii hedges.

Loane knows the territory well and so, of course, do most of the paying customers, who take up their comfortable seats primed for an evening of easy laughter and fun-poking. Initially the laughs do come easily – a bit too easily, perhaps – and, in the early stages, the dialogue sounds as though it is on a loop. But, almost imperceptibly, one starts to get a queasy feeling that what is emerging on stage is a portrait of ourselves. If the verbal exchanges register as superficial and two dimensional, maybe it’s because the characters are superficial and two dimensional. And if the characters are superficial and two dimensional, maybe it’s because the people on whom they are based... It’s a risky concept. The characters have become the audience. This is us.

In response, Stuart Marshall’s set is almost lifelike – but not quite. Under James McFetridge’s blue and gold-tinted lighting, it has a flat, almost graphic feel to it. A minimalist fitted kitchen is littered with unopened boxes and plastic sacks. Beyond the adjoining conservatory are shadowy hints of large detached houses of similar design. An old crescent moon is hovering in a clear sky and the air is filled with the moody sounds of Miles Davis.

This is the new home of Guy (Eugene O’Hare) and Roisin (Alexandra Ford), who have broken off from their unpacking to head upstairs and embark on their concerted efforts to have a baby. But the carefully crafted order of their upwardly mobile lives is about to be shattered as a wonderfully named, razor-faced young hoodlum Robbie Lawless (Ryan McParland) breaks into the house and proceeds to help himself to the contents of the boxes.

Enter Guy, in search of a glass of iced water to quench his thirst and cool his nether regions – the source of several running gags. Spotting Robbie, he clobbers him viciously with a squash racquet, knocking him senseless. Into sight tiptoes Roisin, whose annoyance at Guy’s sudden disappearance is tempered by the sight of an unconscious burglar in her nice clean kitchen. Finally onto the scene come Mr. & Mrs. Neighbourhood Watch, their next door neighbours in ‘the Park’ – loud-mouthed, blustering Peter (Alan McKee) and drama queen Amanda (Cathy White, resplendent in madly floral palazzo pants). And central to their collective consciousness is the groggy and unpleasantly scruffy Robbie, by now trussed up in a chair with a pair of Roisin’s sheer black tights.

Now Robbie may be unable to move but he is certainly able to talk. As the Cava flows and tongues are loosened, he embarks on the worst kind of hard-luck story, which, as it gathers momentum, suggests that he is no ordinary burglar and this no random break-in. His cunningly structured narrative provokes a disturbing series of reactions among the new best friends, from physical violence to liberal sympathy, disdain to pity, revulsion to sexual frenzy. Before our eyes, the social chasm yawns open, with Robbie calmly accepting the punishments and insults inflicted upon him as a mere fact of life in the underbelly of society, while the four pillars of the community start frothing at the mouth and voluntarily owning up to all kinds of greedy and seedy past wrongdoing.

When taking charge of his or her own work, there can be a tendency for a director to be too close to the piece, to insist that the audience does not miss a single nuance of the unfolding plotline. As a result, the first act here proceeds rather slowly and repetitively. But after the interval, the pace of the writing quickens and the dramatic tension mounts, enabling the excellent cast to crank up their performances accordingly. O’Hare delivers a finely judged portrait of Guy, a basically decent man struggling to live up to his liberal leanings. His exchange with McParland’s cocky, smirking Robbie exposes a dark vein at the heart of the comedy and before long Ford, McKee and White are transforming their outwardly respectable alter-egos into appalling human beings.

Dawn breaks and the intruder is finally released, his damage done. As he limps out of their lives, Peter and Amanda return to their cosy nook and their sleeping toddler, Roisin strips down to her scanty negligee and Guy, with a remorseful glance towards what might have been, resumes his conjugal duties. Everything is back to normal but during this eventful night, true instincts have been exposed, things have been said and done that can never be undone. Clever.

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

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Civilisation Game by Tim Loane

3 - 26 May, 2012

Produced by Lyric Theatre
In Lyric Theatre

Written and Directed by Tim Loane

Design: Stuart Marshall

Lighting Design: James C McFetridge

With: Alexandra Ford, Alan McKee, Ryan McParland, Eugene O’Hare, Cathy White