Saturday, 27 September 2014


The Lyric Theatre hosts a strongly acted and well scripted tale of penetrative penitence

Stewart Parker's powerful period piece, Pentecost, resurrected for Belfast's Lyric in 2014 by the theatre's executive producer Jimmy Fay, is a throat-grabbing, entrancing experience. Originally performed by Stephen Rea and his Field Day Theatre Company in 1987, Pentecost is bittersweet in both tone and back story: it was the last play to flow from Parker's pen before he succumbed to cancer a year after its debut.

And the moods and characterisations reek of what might have been Parker's then state of mind: dour but determined, a belief in relief from prolonged pain. Parker's final written gift to us is a series of mirroring analogies strung entirely across a rich, darkly humorous and deeply affecting tapestry of concentrated characterisation. It is a remarkable achievement: intelligent without being impertinent, driven without being didactic.

The setting is Belfast in the throes of the Ulster Workers' Strike of 1974, an event that remains both important and poorly understood forty years on. The idealism of the sixties has wilted and all but died, theft, violence and black market trading are prevalent, and "spongers" are frowned upon heavily by Harold Wilson's Labour government. Northern Ireland is generally a dangerous and daunting place to be at this time. Central to this particular scenario, in the words of director Fay, are "four wounded people in a room... inching their way towards a form of communication." Four people... and one ghost.

Derry-Londonderry actress Judith Roddy (above) endures another Particle Of Dread as Marian, an extremely troubled soul all too slowly inching her way towards divorce from Paul Mallon's motor mouthed Lenny. Their first exchanges are as damp and unforgiving as the peeling paper and insecure insulation of the walls surrounding them, strongly reflecting the attitudes and accommodation of the time. Both Lenny and Marian are, naturally, cynical. But while he seems loudly laconic, she seems academically apathetic, a "quality" she attempts to put to good use in this atmosphere.

Or should that be atmos-fear? For Marian is haunted by unwelcome visits from the spirit of Lily (the excellent Carol Moore), the late, lifelong resident of the house Marian is trying to claim for herself. "You have no right to be here!" screams Lily to Marian during their first visible encounter. But Marian doesn't even like herself, let alone Lily: her battle with the bottle and the quest to find a roof, any roof, to sleep under, seem like the only things keeping her alive for now. And Roddy intelligently depicts her character's not fully convincing facade; we already get the first hint that Marian has more in common with Lily than she would like to admit.

Roisin Gallagher ratchets up the tempestuous, testing tension as Marian's childhood friend Ruth. Forced to flee into the questionable warmth of Marian's heart and hearth after beatings from her abusive husband become too much to take, she is young Connie Corleone personified: defending an indefensible partner for unknown reasons, other than that he is the only companion she believes she will find at the time. Here Parker's script enters a sticky moral quandary. How much value do Marian's advice - sensible it may be - and "home" have for Ruth, when Marian has not even finalised a divorce or fully settled into her new surroundings herself? But then, Marian is trying to break up an unhealthy relationship as opposed to running away from it, and perhaps Ruth's uncomfortable reactions stem from Marian not telling her what she wants to hear. It's a confident, concise countering of the "moral high ground" quagmire, and it is to Roddy, Gallagher, Parker and Fay's credit that it comes off.

The women of the play have cast such a shadow over events so far that the male actors, Paul Mallon (above) and Will Irvine, have their work cut out for them. But they are up to the task, particularly Irvine, who eventually transcends the initial stereotype of a clueless, comedic hippie. His early "Rhys Ifans in Notting Hill" expressions would be more than enough to raise his profile on their own, but that would be diminishing the effect of his all round character playing - and, for that matter, everyone else's.

Bombshell after bombshell, be they literal or humane, descend on this not so nuclear "family" as the play proceeds, with Marian battling to maintain her composure as the apparent "leader of the gang". She insists that certain possessions and rooms of Lily's must stay untouched to protect her memory. But what the play really appears to suggest is that Marian's actions exist to protect herself: the spiritual sojourns of Lily are taking their toll on someone who simply wants somewhere to live. Pentecost feels as much about the quest for a stable identity as the quest for a stable home. And Marian is not finding it in a metaphorical "hall of mirrors" where her inner demon is reflected in the outer demon of Lily: both women are defined by stubborn, angry facades as their coping mechanisms.

By contrast, the melodies Lenny, a failed musician, plays on his trombone are, coincidentally, as catastrophically cacophonic as The Troubles, while Peter eats muesli. Lots of it. Peter develops a "plague on both their houses" attitude - to him, it's no longer us versus them, but he versus an irrational "it" which he doesn't, or simply doesn't want to, understand. We pity him here - who would want to be in his shoes, especially as he has already been revealed to be one of the "spongers" the government dislikes? His outpouring of emotion on an intimacy starved Ruth earns him a predictable but eventually costly reciprocation.

The parallels keep pouring in as this elegant elegy for times gone by becomes almost too much to bear. Lenny is trying to resurrect ghosts (his musical career, his marriage to Marian) while Marian is consistently haunted by one. Curiosity forces Marian to dig further into Lily's private life, heating up an exchange between spirit and human in which both actresses shine and both personalities' resemblances strengthen.

Without going into too much more detail, it's not stretching things to say that it's quite possible Lily doesn't want Marian in the house because she doesn't want her own life, which she has many regrets over, to be lived out all over again on the same premises. Lily, who lived through a war, waited for the troubles to "do away with her" - but they wouldn't. She had to live on. Like the four humans in the play must live on, albeit with a newly discovered, unpredictable, but undeniably unifying bond.

It is said that a home is full of love and dreams; this house has fallen bricks and beams. Whether anything will amount from the resurrected humanity in the place is anyone's guess. But the overall effect of everything leading up to that point is testament to the strength of the script and acting in the penetrative, penitent Pentecost.

Pentecost runs until Saturday, October 18 in Belfast's Lyric Theatre.