Last night I was at a concert by Brian Houston and Ken Haddock back at my old school... A fine, upstanding, and overwhelmingly middle class grammar school on the Gold coast of County Down... Whilst there I discovered that a year 9 English class had gone to Marie Jones' new play at the Waterfront Studio, and had to leave at the interval, seemingly because the language was foul, the subject matter was unsuitable and the production was poor.
This was a little unsettling to hear, since Sally and I had booked to go to the same show tonight. But since neither of us are 13 year old school children (and haven't been for some considerable time) we decided to risk it all the same. And I'm glad I did, because it was a good night out. Yes the language is somewhat ripe, but its set in a doss-house in a run-down inner city loyalist estate, so it wasn't going to be the repartee of the likes of Terence Rattigan... And whilst it was a little melodramatic towards the end and the stage fighting was a bit lame (isn't it ironic that in both the two plays I've seen in the last month, set and staged in Belfast, that the actors couldn't throw or take a punch properly!), Marie Jones' dialogue was as sharp as ever (her ear for the humour and rhythm of everyday Belfast speech is second to none), the interaction of the actors had real synergy and texture and the themes of the play were important. It covered some of the same ground as Gary Mitchell's plays, but the greater leavening of humour made the whole thing more palatable, and ultimately more poignant.
Not everyone approved... there were an increased number of empty seats after the interval, and there were a few snide remarks being made on the stairs by some well-turned out matrons as we left, comparing it unfavourably to "Women on the Verge of HRT" or "Stones in His Pockets"... But in many ways that points up some of the key issues of the play.
Its small cast of characters is a representative sample of the marginalised in Northern Irish society, or at least the protestant/unionist sector of it... A drunk, a former prostitute, a transexual and a tout. These characters are those looked down on even by the Loyalist paramilitaries, who are looked down on by everyone else... particularly those who managed to crawl their way out of the sub-working class mire of post-industrial protestant Belfast. It is almost a "Waiting for Godot" set in the Village... only without the buoyant optimism of Beckett!
Which brings me back to the class that was pulled out of the play half way through. I'm not convinced that the language or content of the play was entirely suitable for those barely into their teens, particularly those who have had no experience of the world from which this play has emerged. But having paid the money, I'm equally not convinced that simply pulling them out was the right thing to do... and I would be interested to find out if there was any attempt to unpack the live issues within the play... (I've subsequently talked about this with the head of English in the school and she tells me that literature informed them that this was a production specifically aimed at the junior school age range, seeking to address issues of citizenship and marginalisation... it might do the latter but whether it was right for that particular age range is questionable.)
There does need to be some way found to bridge the gap between the middle classes and the non-working classes of the inner cities and housing estates, especially in the protestant/unionist/loyalist community... Personally, I think that education has a major role to play in that, which is why the current chaotic transfer system, which disproportionately disadvantages those from post-industrial working class Protestant areas is a complete disaster. The church too has a role to play. But with both school and church it must not be the traditional role that they have played, which was to give people a leg up to get out of the inner cities and sink estates. Rather we need to equip people to rebuild such communities and restore a sense of hope.
Bringing it all full circle, in his gig last night Brian was singing his song "Child of the 70s" and was doing his usual entertaining spiel in the middle of it, talking about what it was like to grow up in the working class loyalist Braniel estate in the middle of the "Troubles"... He then said he now lives in Gilnahirk (a nearby middle-class area for those who don't know the geography), but goes back to the Braniel regularly "to remind myself what Jesus saved me from!" It was a joke, but a joke with a barb and a vein of truth. He then continued:
'You can just imagine Jesus saying: "I think I'll go to earth and die to make everyone middle class.'"
The difference between Brian and some of his peers on the Braniel who did end up following the paths described in "Rock Doves" is probably a combination of his musical talent and Jesus. What are we doing to make sure that others in such estates have the opportunity to take to the wing and fly?