REVIEW: East Belfast Granny

Playwright Fintan Brady follows up his electric and unsettling East Belfast Boy by writing and directing the equally electric and unsettling East Belfast Granny, a relentless, expressionistic one-woman rant and rave that transcends its stripped-down aesthetics and truncated forty-five minute running time to present some of the most determined and devastating consequences of pre-and-post millennial angst.

The choreography of Gary Rowntree, the design of Conleth White, the moody energy of backing band Reggie Chamberlain-King, Geoff Hatt and John Macormac, and, above all, a powerhouse performance from Luna Kalo as the title character come together to unleash a richly thematic banquet from the visual trappings of an everyday take-away.

From the moment she enters, Kalo is a dominant presence, a "shadow on the wall staring at things (she) cannot fix)" with a troubling smile that barely conceals a borderline breakdown. Projecting neither full trust nor consummate warmth, Kalo's Sarah Irwin ignores how she may be coming across to her audience to simply show and tell it how it is: she is a relatively very young grandmother to the twins of a smart daughter, and she has a son who was swayed by peer pressure to commit a terrible crime.

Woven into this tale of a fractured family tree are on-and-off relationships, ex-partners, substance misuse and most importantly, social and financial conditions. And the scary thing is that Sarah's story isn't taking place in a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far way: it's the norm, and it's happening where we are, in East Belfast, watching this play. It's the amalgam of several stories told by real life East Belfast Grannies, all of whom have shared their experiences with Brady to help create an example of emptiness. A giant middle finger to humankind, or worse, to your friends, when you find that you yourself are the only one you can really rely on.

Despite this persistently gloomy undercurrent, Brady and Kalo maintain a crisp, tight focus which also allows us and Sarah to often look on the bright side. Sarah is not so much bitter as determined and battle-worn, most tellingly when she fondly recalls selling burgers on the night of the Millennium celebrations for much more than they cost to make.

In that moment alone, what looks like settling for scraps at the bottom of the table is viewed as an intelligent entrepreneurial opportunity. The popular demand for the instant and easy satisfaction of fast food and the momentary zeitgeist of Y2K works to her advantage, even if only temporarily. It is the knack of capitalising on "little big moments" like this that keeps the community going among the cult of affluent individualism, and Sarah is smart enough to know this.

But Sarah's intuition and insight spreads far beyond that moment, and her community, alone. She may not always be resourceful in money but she is definitely resourceful in mind. She hasn't had time to dream, she has only had time to grow up, and in that sense, East Belfast Granny is not only about re-tailoring dreams according to reality, but maintaining what dreams we still have against the harsher reality that one fears might break them.

When we visit East Belfast, would we rather admire the majesty of Samson & Goliath, or view the rusty railings that obscure them, both of which feature on one of many projected images behind Sarah herself? We know the answer. The line between landmark achievements and fading ideals has rarely seemed so fine, and it is to Sarah's credit that she continuously battles to counter the negative effects of poverty and premature parenthood on her mental health, becoming an admirable, courageous heroine in the process. I didn't think I'd like East Belfast Granny as much as I did, but, thematically at least, it may well be one of the best plays of the year.

Simon Fallaha

East Belfast Granny, a Partisan Production in association with Ballymac Friendship Trust, ran at the Ballymac Friendship Centre from August 7 - 10 as part of the Eastside Arts Festival.

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