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Theatre in Review: Belfast Blues (Irish Repertory Online)

Geraldine Hughes

Geraldine Hughes had the kind of childhood of which solo theatre pieces are made, though perhaps that could be true of anyone who spent their formative years in Northern Ireland during the '70s and '80s. Not everyone has her eye, however. The details she excavates from her past form a clashing, yet fascinating, pattern of intertwined laughter and horror: a warmly amusing anecdote about growing pains is rattled by the sound of gunfire; domestic life is interrupted by the thud of a body falling from a high window. Such are the facts of a youth spent in the shadow of the Peace Line, the ill-named wall between Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. It's a life made up of ice cream and school and Starsky & Hutch episodes and bombs and decapitations and cries in the street that Bobby Sands is dead.

Hughes' telling is observant in a way that comes from looking back with fierce love but no rose-tinted sentiment. Her younger self preens with holiness in her First Communion dress, only to gag on her first taste of the host. (That she has been warned chewing the sacred morsel will lead to immediate damnation only adds to her trouble.) She is exposed to the prejudices of her time and place: a family friend swears that it is possible to identify Protestants by their too-closely set eyes. Her parents -- a father who likes his drop and a mother who idolizes Debbie Reynolds -- are imperfect, if vivid, role models whose attempt at running an illegal sweet shop out of a council flat leads to farcical complications, ending in a chilling encounter with a snooping bureaucrat from the local housing authority. A visit to the grocer becomes a precisely timed exercise in suspense when Hughes' mother is handed a box containing an IRA bomb, which she must sneak past the British soldier standing guard on the street.

The struggle to hold together a large family with no money and few prospects while inhabiting a toxic political environment is memorably delineated. But Hughes also has a curveball at her command: One day at school, a nun selects her and a few others (all of them blessed with good teeth) to audition for an American television film. Yet another strand of Belfast Blues follows her journey to Dublin and, later, to the US, where she earns her first professional credit. The film, Children in the Crossfire, a drama of the Irish Troubles, starring Julia Duffy and Karen Valentine, sounds like a pip, but it put Hughes on the road to a new life. When she returns home from her Hollywood stay, faintly embarrassed by her new status, her ailing father forces her to make a promise that she must, at a certain cost, break.

There's so much going on in Belfast Blues that its 75-minute running time may not be enough to do it all justice. (The title has a double meaning, referring to the sorrows of life in the city and to Hughes' piercing blue eyes, which catch the attention of the film director George Schaefer.) At times, one feels that the extraordinarily complex material is being given the once-over-lightly treatment. But by the time Hughes, on the brink of adulthood, has a private moment in the presence of her now-dead father, you may feel an unexpected rush of sorrow. And you may suddenly realize how well you have been prepared for a quietly wrenching moment of letting go.

Hughes, under the direction of Carol Kane, slips effortlessly into and out of various personas, including a nicotine-addicted, IRA-worshiping neighbor; a supercilious nun; and several others. This performance was recorded at a theatre in Belfast, and the audience knows whereof she speaks, adding an extra bit of authenticity to the performance. On video, Jonathan Christman's lighting and projection design (including a clip from Children of the Crossfire) are hard to assess, but Jonathan Snipes' sound design is effectively jarring. Belfast Blues is the story, told with the ring of honesty, of a spirited young girl whose parents could give her nothing but the foundation for a productive life. It finds joy in the most unexpected places. --David Barbour

(24 September 2020)

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