REVIEW: A Thought For Your Pennies

As we enter St. Matthew's Sports & Social Club in East Belfast and take our places around the centre of the floor, there is a sense of family history in the air to go with the engrossing one-man show about to proceed and develop before our eyes.

St. Matthew's, as it turns out, was where actor Daniel Kelly's late grandfather and his brother boxed, in the Short Strand where Kelly's whole family hailed from. And that is where A Thought For Your Pennies, directed by Patrick J O’Reilly and both penned and performed by Kelly, takes place – an open space viewed from four sides of a room which functions as a literal and metaphorical boxing ring.

This is the "ring" where Kelly impressively gets to grips with character acting. As Ray, the grandson of an international boxer beginning to succumb to dementia, Kelly is faced with the familiar but relentlessly pressurising challenge of both following his own path and learning to care for an elderly relative. It's a task Kelly accomplishes with aplomb, through a rather unique kind of performing – reserved intensity, concentrated mentality in a physically demanding arena.

The intensity is reserved, and must be, because Kelly is attempting, and succeeding, in presenting Ray as a character consumed by a never-ending series of battles for him and the engrossed audience to chew on. He is forced to come to terms with how his grandfather's condition, and later, his first love, will change his outlook on life as he becomes a boxer. He contemplates not so much winning the fights, but what and who he is winning the fights for. It isn't about the triumph but the meaning of and the background to the triumph, a clever consideration of the ideological bias which emerges from generational and environmental circumstances. Does Ray fear success or does he fear the manner of the success? Is it a case of winning a professional battle, or is it a means to a personal end? It may well be that he will permanently be haunted by the prospect of never feeling like he is truly able to follow his own path because of a combination of past memories and future fears – something he is trying to combat, and something so many of us can relate to.

It is also possible to appreciate A Thought For Your Pennies as an exercise and example of the sporting mindset. That is to say, the unforgiving necessity for coordination and intelligence which will allow a sportsperson to build on their strengths and not their weaknesses. Questions of whether this is harder or easier to come by without the protective shield of a family are raised – how often does the determined and ambitious sportsperson find themselves creating a rival when there doesn't need to be one? And how many rough experiences, either in training or in the arena, can they take before they properly climb the learning curve? Ray doesn't doubt he will get there, wherever "there" is, but one does ponder how many outsiders will truly be willing to give him the unconditional support he needs.

Like several fine works this year, A Thought For Your Pennies possesses genuine beauty amidst the coldness and loneliness therein. While both ends of the age scale, grandfather and grandson, are confused and clinging on the edge, there is pleasure to be found in one generation successfully passing on his bookshelf of memories to the other, which may also be true when Ray becomes a father himself. It is not necessarily, as Ray implies within the play, about winning, but losing a bit better, gradually climbing step by step up a ladder to comfort and respect. There's the penny for your thoughts in A Thought For Your Pennies.

Simon Fallaha

A Thought For Your Pennies ran at St Matthew's Sports & Social Club as part of the Eastside Arts Festival. Photography: Carrie Davenport.

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