Sometimes you just get lucky. A small theatre, a new play, a young actor, a sleeting night. Going out to theatre can seem a gamble not worth the pains. But tonight it all came together, and audiences who ventured to Keegan Theatre’s world premiere of Basra Boy were treated to the real deal. Both play and performance are terrific.
Speedy is a young man on the dole in East Belfast. The violence internally in Northern Ireland has subsided but there are rumblings of another war fought far away. For Speedy it doesn’t mean much. He plays flute in a marching band for competition. He hangs about with his three mates. He drinks, he brawls, he flirts with the girls. He deals with his mom and her parade of boyfriends. That is until best mate Stig does the unthinkable; he signs up to go fight and is sent to southern Iraq.
Actor Josh Sticklin plays all the characters in the play. He sometimes uses his highly skillful impersonations to mock, such as when he portrays his mother reading to him about how to simulate orgasm. He also rages, as when he assumes the bloated body of her most recent boyfriend, fat Raymond, who tries to gain entrance to the bathroom Josh is occupying. At other times, Sticklin moves quickly back and forth between characters, including bar maid, band “road marshall”, social worker and doctor, conducting both sides of a conversation with a kind of dazzling intensity. But always these role-playings are in the service of his story, that of a somewhat troubled young man who insists on staying a knucklehead. The way Josh Sticklin tells it, you can’t help but like this enthusiastic kid who has up to now never had to grown up.
Director Abigail Isaac has taken the set of the other Keegan Theatre show in rep, The Weir, and put it to very clever use for this one-man show. A big three sided bar that takes up most of the stage becomes a bedroom when Speedy flings himself across the bartop onto his bunk. When he crouches in front, the same bar becomes a street corner or a bunker in the war. And sometimes a bar is just a bar, and the audience realizes how the character of Speedy both stokes and justifies his life with a few pints.
Isaac has crafted the production beautifully to make every scene fold into another with minimum fuss and lightning speed. She is aided by the energetic and fearless Sticklin, who flings himself through the air, twisting, turning, and marching, now swaggering like a bantam rooster, now crouching in pain after getting punched out in a fight. His oral skills are just as fearless, for Sticklin not only has nailed the accent, but he treats the audience to a rain of words with such confidence and relish that we get word-drunk along with him. This is a dazzling performance of a very gifted actor.
The play is written like a piece of music. What appears at first the ramblings of a young man are actually finely tuned to come together in a cohesive whole. Playwright Rosemary Jenkinson weaves themes and tempi, doubling back to repeat phrases that show us her writing is always in control. “Fold, fold, flick” becomes the refrain of putting away a band uniform. The phrase also drives home the point that this about the extent of order in the young man’s life. Images are caught, sparkling like gems. Speaking of his mate, red-headed Stig, Speedy calls him “ginge” and “ethnically disabled”. Sticklin’s character is a master of Irish hyperbole with phrases like “enormous tsunami of cellulite.” His words become poetry and the poetry crescendos when he takes the repeated phrase “Romeo homeo” (go home) through to a James Joycian climax, treating us to mom’s orgasm in the next room with “O Raymondo!”:
The piece is a delightful ride for the audience, but underneath, its themes of troubled youth and the conflicted attitudes about the current wars in the Middle East also sound true. The audience wants to stay in a bubble of amused distraction and is as unprepared as Speedy to come crashing down in the concluding scenes of pain and revelation. At the end, we know as Speedy discovers suddenly that he will never be a boy-o again.
This is a play not to be missed, and, moment for moment, it’s a performance packed with dynamite and delight.
By Rosemary Jenkinson
Directed by Abigail Isaac
Produced by The Keegan Theatre at Church Street Theatre
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running Time: 1 hour 9 minutes with no intermission