It's impossible to imagine what life must have been like in Northern Ireland during the height of the sectarian troubles. This short play by Owen McCafferty gives us a glimpse of that life as seen through the eyes of two young boys growing up in Belfast during the early 1970s.
Mojo (Iarla McGowan) and Mickybo (Roger Thomson) are young boys. We don't know exactly how old they are, but since they taste their first cigarette during the play, I would guess they are supposed to be around 9 or 10 years-old. They are naïve and innocent. They're obsessed with cowboy films – particularly 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' which they re-enact at various points in the play. Their pastimes include skimming stones, the Saturday morning film club, indulging in spitting competitions and fighting with two local bullies: Fuckface and Gank the Wank.
I've seen other plays and musicals where adults take on the roles of children, and the results often make me cringe. But not here. Iarla McGowan and Roger Thomson inhabit these characters almost like second skins. And they're well-supported with a script that avoids embarrassing, childish clichés, but still portrays children with real and believable personalities.
The two actors also take on numerous other roles to flesh-out the lives of Mojo and Mickybo. Their parents, the usherette and Uncle Sydney at the cinema, a bus driver, the two bullies, all get a look-in. Both actors make effortless transitions between their child roles and these other characters, instantly changing their speech patterns and mannerisms which adds to the humour, of course.
Designer Mike Lees has produced a set which is strikingly real and evocative. A concrete barrier – the icon of separation - stretches round the back of the stage area. Mounted on that is a layer of corrugated iron and to top it all off, there's a further layer of wire fence. In two places, explosions have ripped the barrier apart, providing cubby-holes for the kids to hide or play, and used to good effect to vary locations.
The pace in this show is frantic and hardly slows for more than a few moments. It's a pace that stretches these two actors to the limits of physical endurance. Well, that's how it seems to the audience because they hardly pause for a breath, delivering non-stop dialogue which is often very funny, and sometimes brutally poignant. This kind of high-octane delivery can easily go awry, but it's all kept in perfect check thanks to exacting and meticulous direction by Emily Jenkins. More than that, there's invention in the effects which, of necessity, are mostly confined to action. There's a particularly neat scene where the boys are running from the rival gang and Mojo starts to lag behind his friend. Clever stuff.
The horror of life in 70s Belfast is forcefully brought home when one of the boys says “Belfast is mad, and we're all going to be murdered in our beds”. It's a line that sends an unpleasant, but distinct shiver down your spine. And that is reflected in events during the play and at the end where sectarianism eventually destroys the boys' friendship.
With two exceptional performances, a fine script and excellent production values this is thought-provoking theatre at its best. Highly recommended.