Sunday, 8 June 2014

Theatre review: Spokesong

Any 1970s Northern Irish play is going to at least touch on the Troubles, but Stewart Parker's Spokesong does so with a surprisingly light, even quirky approach. Frank (Stephen Cavanagh) runs the Belfast bike shop that's been the family business since the 1890s, but its future is threatened by a planned bypass that will see the building demolished in the name of easing traffic. The very idea of town planning in a city whose landscape is regularly changed by bombs seems like a kind of dark joke, but bicycles are Frank's passion as well as his job, and he has a plan to put forward to the council meeting: A fleet of free bicycles throughout the city, to be used by anyone as needed. As he meets his very own Daisy Bell (Elly Condron) and finds romance, Frank starts to imagine that his bicycle utopia could actually be the solution to all the city's troubles.

Parker's play is itself a bit of a love song to the bicycle, a mode of transport which in 1973, when the story is set, seems to be on the way out as it starts to become affordable for everyone to have a car. But as Frank points out, you can make a car bomb, but a bike's workings are all transparent, you can't hide anything in them.

Although rooted in a heavy subject, and with the harsh realities of life in 1970s Belfast frequently encroaching on its story, Spokesong takes its cue from its protagonist and keeps a light, optimistic touch. The title is no misnomer and the action is regularly interspersed with bicycle-themed songs, and Guy Jones' production is held together by an MC, the Trick Cyclist (Ben Callon,) who provides many of the songs as well as playing all the smaller roles.

The most regular injection of reality into the shop comes once Frank's younger brother Julian (Paul Mallon) returns after having gone missing a few years before. The black sheep of the family, he's also an angry voice of sectarian politics and a possible threat to Frank's relationship with Daisy. And he provides a less rose-tinted view of their grandfather Francis (Jack Power,) whose story we often flash back to, and whose wooing of bike-riding suffragette Kitty (Melanie McHugh) Frank hopes to repeat with Daisy.

Spokesong's tone is a bit uneven, never quite reconciling its music-hall whimsical side with the permanent war zone it's exploring at its heart, but it's certainly something different, and a must for anyone who feels as evangelical about bicycles as Frank himself does.

Spokesong by Stewart Parker is booking in repertory until the 10th of June at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

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