A review by Richard J Thornton for EXTRA! EXTRA!



Ancient Lights Theatre Co. Present



Irish Blood, English Heart



Written by Darren Murphy



Directed by Caitriona McLaughlin



Union Theatre


15 Feb – 5 Mar 2011




It’s an alluring introduction to any piece when, if, when you take your seat in the theatre, you’re unsure where the set ends and the permanent venue begins. Being so cleverly moulded into the cavernous Union Theatre, the set immediately absorbs any sauntering audience members and drugs them into forgetting they are about to watch fiction. And indeed, the line between fact and fiction is the emotional sticking point of this gritty, high-energy, character-based play. How much do you own your family experiences? Perhaps not enough to distort them into sellable art that offends the loved-ones you portray. Irish Blood, English Heart is a complex drama that uses the idiosyncrasies of the London tongue to discuss the tyranny of idolisation and the emotional paralysis of indiscoverable family truths.

Con is a south London taxi driver who followed in the footsteps of his Irish father, a self-trained cabbie who came to England with nothing and fought to build a life. Peggy is Con’s adoring but fiery wife who demands that Con end his obsession with his now-dead alcoholic father and get some money out of Ray after the success of his book. Ray is Con’s comedian-cum-writer brother who’s just made it big in the States but didn’t even bother with his father’s funeral. Enter Anthony, the ex-con teenager the dead man taught how to be a cabbie, hour after gruelling hour in the derelict warehouse in which the entire play is set.

The play takes form through a whirlwind of memories and impressions of a man whose bitterness and violence forged two sons, both in his own image, but one less comfortably so. These ideas are the skeleton of an emotional drama of desires and values which shows the immense power of untailored fatherhood and its ability to be a either a life-destroying force or a success-enhancing stimulant. Yet, despite the central role of the un-staged patriarch, the soul of the play is the eerie brotherhood of the two middle-aged men, Con and Ray. Theirs is a relationship which lacks a precious core but has the earmarks of a lifetime of sharing.  One is divided by viciously opposing views of the man who raised them, and the saddening reality of the other’s success and his own failure.

The acting is as wondrous as the casting. Ian Groombridge emotionally captures both the romance and anger of the pitiful Con, while Howard Teale sweetly pitches a half-arrogant, half-desperate tone into the sardonic but slippery Ray Suede. Oliver Gilbert plays a determined, well-presented, convincing role as the boy Anthony, but it is Carolyn Tomkinson as the ambitious but embittered Peggy who shines brightest. Tomkinson has a steeliness which pushes her character furthest, beyond the limits of her scripted time and space and into a wider representation of womanhood which is often embodied by women in their most stressful of times. She is Caitriona McLaughlin’s most polished gem.

Despite the abundance of site-specific and cleverly designed spaces, it is still a rare feat when a designer can blur the edges of the set with the interior architecture of a building, so credit to Francesca Rodrigues. Stumbling in off of Union Street (yes, you actually have to leave the bar and re-enter the performance space from the arches beneath the bridge) it feels as if you’ve discovered a hidden workshop of some retired, reclusive cabbie… and that’s because you have. The experience is the first in a wave of theatrical achievements, and is quickly accompanied by atmospheric Irish work songs and Steve Miller’s dusky but warm lighting. The lighting is a treat throughout, from the glowing headlights of the front half of the parked black cab, to the swinging lines of bulbs hovering above the audience on both sides of the traverse stage.

Irish Blood, English Heart is the type of play which sells itself to its audience in a scatter of deft artistic touches from a team of highly skilled and passionate theatre makers. It sounds formulaic, but sometimes you have to be business-like to create something with the soul of a thousand left turns onto Blackfriars Bridge, and a heart full of more contradicting attitudes to life than one black cab can hold. If you want to absorb a forceful examination of personal ambitions and nostalgic confusion, all in a deliciously produced piece of real British theatre, hop in a cab and shout for 204 Union Street.



Box Office: www.ticketsource.co.uk/uniontheatre / 020 7261 9876
Union Theatre
204 Union Street
Tuesday 15th Feb - Sat 5th March @ 7.30pm
Tickets £13/Credit Crunch Tuesday - all tickets £10

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