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The Boat Factory, Kings Head Theatre

Dan Gordon
Directed by Philip Crawford
★★★★

Pros: Clever staging and well-crafted writing.

Cons: A bit formulaic in parts.

Our Verdict: A thoroughly slick production with a superbly versatile cast.

Courtesy of www.happenstancetheatre.co.uk

I remember my very first job: working as a waiter in a pub. Everything was going fine until I was sacked for changing the name of the Soup of the Day: Mahogany-Steamed Trout Cheeks in a Balsamico-Nettle Reservoir sounded far more appealing than Pea and Ham. Unbelievably my bosses had the outrageous cheek to disagree with me. But in hindsight they were probably right. It was, after all, a Weatherspoons.

A first job is a momentous occasion, and in Happenstance’s production of The Boat Factory, protagonist Davy Gordon takes us through this seminal episode in his life. Growing up in Northern Ireland, he joined a local ship builders’ as a young lad in 1947. Davy faced the same old hurdles any newcomer has to overcome: complicated work systems, an unreasonable and psychotic boss, weird co-workers, the undeniable urge to take your clothes off in the boardroom (actually, maybe the last one’s just me).

But a few minutes into the play, the similarities between young Davy’s experiences and my time at the Dog and Vomit (or whatever it was called) quickly dispersed. This was 1940s Belfast, and the world famous Harland and Wolff shipyard was the primary source of income in the area. As a result, hoards of workers would descend on the docks each day. The words ‘health’ and ‘safety’ were about as affiliated back then as ‘The Saturdays’ and ‘talented’.

What was intriguing about the whole set-up was that the character of Davy Gordon was played by actor/writer Dan Gordon, who, if I understand the programme correctly, is the son of the real life Davy. This added a hugely personal touch to proceedings. As an audience, we knew full-well that the passion and emotion etched on Gordon’s face while acting out his father’s life was as genuine as they come. It certainly takes a special guy to buck the general consensus of most men by actually wanting to become his father.

The story took the form of a reminiscent account from the aged, present-day Davy Gordon. As a result, actor Dan was required to play Davy predominantly as a 16-year-old, despite being in his fifties. But for some reason (that reason almost certainly being the skill of the acting) this wasn’t a problem. Dan’s kitten-like energy and puppy-dog eyes shone, making him seem years younger (although, just to be clear, he wasn’t some strange cat/dog monstrosity).

The play-within-a-play structure had a touch of The Woman in Black about it (without the screaming nutter). This was enhanced by the fact that there was only one other cast member (Michael Condron as Geordie Kilpatrick). As a result, the pair was required to re-enact Davy’s experiences with great ingenuity, using the bare scaffolding stage and a limited number of props. The actors would flip between characters effortlessly; one time, during a scene of three people, they even played the same character at different times (cleverly and simply designated by the transferring of a bowler hat). I did wonder whether Happenstance had had particularly constrained budgets at the moment, but in the end the reasoning behind this sparse cast all became clear.

All in all it was a very enjoyable, faultless performance from a well-oiled theatre company. My only issue is that it was probably a little too slick for my liking. The story, although perfectly structured was fairly predictable and I felt there were quite a few heartstring-pulling tricks of the trade that I’d seen before. So in a sense it was kind of like an Irish boat-building equivalent of The Shawshank Redemption: historically atmospheric, bromance galore, and plenty of moments that would make you well up. It was a glimpse of Hollywood, but in a small pub theatre in Islington. This is no bad thing, I just personally could’ve done with a bit more edge and irreverence. But judging by the whooping and the standing ovation from some audience members at the end, not everyone agreed with me. At least I won’t lose my job over it.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

The Boat Factory runs at The Kings Head Theatre until 31st August 2013.
Box Office: 0207 478 0160 or book online at: http://kingsheadtheatre.ticketsolve.com/shows/2013/8

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