16 Sep The Cultured Spirit at The Belfast Barge | Review
It’s an exciting time to be in Northern Ireland. New restaurants, cafes, hotels and even theatre companies are opening up everyday, enriching the country for tourists and locals alike.
Marble Productions is the latest addition to Northern Irish theatre, founded by Cathy Ievers and Ellen Colliers, two young women passionate about the arts in Northern Ireland. Marble Productions first event The Cultured Spirit is a celebration of Northern Irish culture, weaving together five of its key cultural elements – food, drink, music, theatre and history. Ellen, in an article for Derry Journal outlines “We aim to promote Northern Irish culture and nurture Northern Irish talent in everything we do. We hope to make Northern Irish theatre enjoyable and accessible to everyone.”
The opening night of The Cultured Spirit, Marble Productions debut event, took place by Belfast’s scenic water front in the Belfast Barge, a boat/restaurant/function room. Given Belfast’s rich ship-building past, the choice of this nautical venue felt perfect. This was only confirmed further when descending down to the lower deck of the boat and into the event room, adorned with fairy lights and nautical decor, all building the atmosphere of a truly intimate setting.
Cocktails from Moira based distillery, Ruby Blue Spirits, were served upon entry, fulfilling the drinks part of the evening with a smooth potato vodka, lemonade, thyme and apple combination.
The audience equipped with their cocktails, local musician Lucy Robinson eased us into the evening with a mellow acoustic set. Beginning with two covers combined into one ‘Crazy’ and ‘The Sun Don’t Shine’ Lucy’s husky, full bodied vocals, reminiscent of the likes of Daughter, are the kind of vocals that have the ability to make an audience fall silent through emotive, striking and skilled performance. For me, acoustic music can sound quite samey and often becomes a kind of background music; not so this time. Through impressive vocal and musical skill Lucy Robinson kept the audience absorbed throughout.
Performing a selection of covers and originals, it’s a varied set that pays homage to the artists (a few Northern Irish names in the mix such as Foy Vance and Gareth Dunlop) who have inspired her while showcasing the talent that inspiration has kindled. A particular highlight of the set is the original song ‘Poison’ which Lucy tells the audience is about a boy who left her heartbroken. Combining candid, poignant lyrics with catchy percussive guitar accompaniment, ‘Poison’ alongside originals ‘Coffee’ and ‘Somewhere’ really stand out within the set.
A couple of ambitious covers are added to the mix too – Fleetwood Mac – Dreams and The Cranberries – Zombie. I say ambitious because these are not easy songs to cover for two reasons – a) they’re so ingrained into people’s minds that any convergence from the original is risky and b) Stevie Nicks and Dolores O’Riordan’s vocals are incredible. However, it’s refreshing to hear acoustic covers of these beloved tracks. Rather than staying close to the original format, Lucy puts her own stamp on the pace and vocals which transforms “Dreams” into a bittersweet acoustic track and “Zombie” into a slow, melancholic lament.
To be honest, the promise of cheesecake sealed the deal for me for this event. I mean, music and cocktails go pretty well together anyway but you throw cheesecake into the mix and things get very exciting. Provided by local bakery A Slice of Heaven, a few different flavours were served to the audience during the interval between Lucy’s set and the theatre segment soon to follow.
Bobby Savage’s Secret War by playwright Michael Ievers formed the theatre offering of the evening, taking the audience back to 1941 to a post-Blitz Belfast. The narrator (played by Jason Nugent), sets the scene and brings to life the devastating reality of Belfast during the war. Behind him, as the context is being described to the audience, Nell (played by Andree Upritchard) and Eileen (played by Sara Donnelly), enter the stage, looking into the distance. They gaze with solemnity upon the scorched city of Belfast wondering where Bobby (Nell’s son and Eileen’s boyfriend) is and if he is safe. Their relationship is fraught with the struggle for attention from Bobby (played by James Cameron).
Bobby works for a special unit in the RAF and returns home after a meeting at Stormont. While this is certainly a play about war, familial relationships take precedence and this is evident in the scenes of the family dynamics between Bobby and his mother and father. Andree Upritchard portrays a loving but very tough mother through Nell, and Jason Nugent, plays Bobby’s father who is a humorous, down-to-earth man, fond of a few pints. Jason Nugent skilfully plays multiple characters throughout the play showcasing a range of accents. His ability to seamlessly transition from the role of narrator into Bobby’s father, an English lieutenant and American general is nothing short of impressive.
Despite a small, sparse stage set up and very little props, Bobby Savage’s Secret War manages to transport the story between Belfast, England, America, back to Belfast and finally, in a fighter jet somewhere over Flanders where Bobby was last known to have been. The fact that the story doesn’t get lost through all these transitions between locations is testament to the integrity of the storytelling and well-performed, layered characters.
Combining Northern Irish colloquialisms and humour with emotionally driven moments verging on difficult to watch through their candour, Bobby Savage’s Secret War is an extremely moving and memorable short play.
Throughout school my favourite subject was history. I, like many others, studied WW2 during my GCSE’s and at A-Level. Yet, I have to admit that I don’t really know a great deal about Belfast and Northern Ireland more widely during the war. I knew that the Blitz hit Belfast hard and that during war times the grounds of Queen’s University were used to grow vegetables, but that is about the extent of my knowledge when it comes to Northern Ireland during war.
Seeing Bobby Savage’s Secret War reignited that fascination I have with history, and with very little props and fantastic, heartfelt performances, keenly built a sense of Northern Ireland during the 1941 and 1942.
Once the play wrapped up, the playwright Michael Ievers took to the stage to provide some historical context and a sense of the inspiration behind Bobby Savage’s Secret War. The events acted out in the play are, as Ievers puts it “80% true story and 20% dramatic license.” It’s interesting to learn further about the story, one which as turns out, is so close to home for the playwright – Bobby was his uncle. After happening upon a box filled with Bobby’s diaries, Michael Ievers set out to find out more about his uncle’s role in the RAF and his disappearance in 1942.
Marble Productions continue their The Cultured Spirit tour through Northern Ireland with upcoming shows including – Studio 1A in Bangor from 19th – 21st September, Derry Playhouse on 21st September and back to Belfast in the Black Box from 24th – 25th September.