The Real Man

'The Real Man' presented by Studio Theatre Company at the MAC, Belfast.

'The Real Man' presented by Studio Theatre Company at the MAC, Belfast.

What with the Titanic centenary last year, and the 400th anniversary of Belfast's civic charter this year, there's been a veritable spate of plays about the city in recent times, of widely varying quality. It can begin to feel like navel-gazing, frankly, so it's good to see a new company turning decisively away from furrow-browed historical analysis, ‘Troubles’ exegesis, or the complacent peddling of so-called ‘local humour.’ There's been too much of all those things recently.

Enter Studio Theatre Company with The Real Man, a new play nominally set in the city, but whose themes potentially have broader geographical resonance. The author is anonymous, because, we learn, “The Real Man and future plays will comment on contemporary issues observed first hand.” Isn't that what many contemporary playwrights do anyway? Why be coy about it?

The anonymity seems unnecessarily defensive: it isn't as if The Real Man is earth-shakingly whistle-blowing in its themes and revelations. Police corruption, extra-marital physicality, drug abuse and closet homosexuality are important topics, but hardly dangerously controversial or liable to draw severe public opprobrium on an author or playwright who treats them.

The physicality in The Real Man occurs between Davy Nolan, the embattled police superintendent and fulcrum of the action, and Rachel McCormick, the duty solicitor at Nolan’s station. Their affair, partially conducted in the barracks, muddies the waters of their professional relationship, especially when a young police constable batters a gay prisoner at the station.

Nolan reluctantly becomes mired in a cover-up, with gruesome consequences, when his own son Adam goes missing. It transpires that Adam is involved in drugs, hates his father, and has consequently been unable to tell him he is homosexual. The gay-bashing constable sniffs this out immediately, and gives the young Nolan a thorough hammering, thinking that he's safe from further sanctions, as his superintendent is fatally compromised by immorally concealing the first incident.

The problem is, which particular issue are we supposed to be concentrating on precisely? Nolan's infidelity is presented as a fait accompli, with little or no attempt to examine the reasons for it, or why his mistress continues to tolerate his self-indulgent, occasionally brutish behaviour. His son's drug use is even more glibly skimmed over, as is his gayness. Why it should be such an immense source of discomfiture to Nolan is also barely hinted at – his main worry appears to be that Adam will be beaten up in perpetuity on account of his sexual orientation.

In the same way, Nolan's decision to cover up the initial assault seems scantily accounted for, and mainly based on the fear of relinquishing his police pension, should the politically-correct brigade find out that a gay hate crime happened on his watch at the station. The path from probity to serious corruption is a short one in The Real Man: it seems seriously under-investigated.

Issue overload is undoubtedly a problem with the script as it stands at the moment, and makes it difficult to act the lines convincingly. In this context the Nolan of Ronan Miskimmin is a laudable achievement. It's a long part, and Miskimmin shows admirable stamina and concentration in developing his portrayal of a man found seriously wanting as an emotional and professional multi-tasker, prone to taking easy options and avoiding personal responsibilities.

Nolan is by far the largest part, and the other characters by contrast seem sketchy and under-developed. Scott Watson gets little opportunity to do more than leer homophobically as PC Ben Jackson, while Anna Gillen graphically presents Nolan's wife Kate as a screeching termagant, which is what she is effectively. Patrick Gray's shrewd, doughty take on Sergeant Rory Walsh (Sancho Panza to Nolan's morally flailing Don Quixote) is quietly convincing, while Rachael Galloway also makes much of duty solicitor Rachel McCormick's conflicted allegiances, and is excellent in the scene where Nolan comes close to date-raping her in her own apartment.

Catriona King directs intelligently, although I wish she hadn't made the decision to elongate the pauses in conversation between characters to real-time dimensions. The silences that result are far from being always pregnant, and cumulatively dissipate dramatic tension rather than enhancing it. Sets are minimal, emblematic items of domestic and office furniture suggesting, variously, the police station, a pub, a custody suite and Rachel McCormick's apartment.

The Real Man is an ambitious play, not least because it so deliberately eschews all the usual stereotypes of Belfast-based drama, and attempts to stretch its audiences in other, less familiar directions. That's certainly to be applauded, and while this particular play ultimately feels over-packed conceptually, it's the type of furrow I hope the Studio Theatre Company will keep ploughing in the future.

Terry Blain is an arts journalist and cultural commentator, contributing regularly to BBC Music Magazine, Opera magazine, the Belfast Telegraph, Culture Northern Ireland and BBC Radio Ulster.

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Real Man by Zeitgenossen

20 - 22 June 2012

Produced by Studio Theatre Company
In the MAC, Belfast

Directed by Catriona King

Technical Director: Billy Sayers

Props: Andrew Gray

With: Ronan Miskimmin, Patrick Gray, Scott Watson, Patrick Joe Davey, Rachael Galloway, Anna Gillen, Fiona McKernan