Pros: Writing, direction, acting and design all come together beautifully to make this amazing piece of theatre.
Cons: I had to dig out my Thesaurus to find more synonyms for ‘brilliant’.
Spokesong, written in 1975, was the first play by Ulster playwright Stewart Parker. Set in early seventies Belfast, with the occasional trip back in time, the show revolves around a little bike shop. The current shop owner is Frank, a genial fellow with a passion for his trade and a major crush on school teacher Daisy. It’s the time of the Troubles, and bombs are going off left and right, but Frank is more worried about redevelopment plans that will see a new motorway running right through his neighbourhood. He argues that the city should invest in bikes instead, 50,000 of them to be precise, spread throughout the city for everyone to use. But most people have little patience for Frank’s idealism, least of all his acerbic brother Julian who has just arrived from London to document Belfast’s downfall. Meanwhile, we dive into the past to get to know Frank’s grandparents, Francis and Kitty, who opened the shop some eighty years before.
That Spokesong was a hit at the 1975 Dublin Theatre Festival and earned Parker an award for Most Promising Playwright is no coincidence: it simply is an excellent piece of theatre. By choosing innocently eccentric Frank as his protagonist, Parker has managed to address some supremely heavy subject matter in a relatively light-hearted, humorous way. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that this makes Spokesong an easy ride. From Daisy’s description of her class of teenagers discussing the most effective way to blow up a car, to Julian’s bitter nonchalance about the pet store across the road blowing up (‘For one magical moment it was raining real cats and dogs’), this is humour with a bite. The bike shop is a clear, yet not obnoxiously in-your-face metaphor for Belfast itself, and the time travelling provides background to the present conflict and its politics. The characters too represent ideological standpoints but without reducing them to simply that; they are first and foremost human beings.
The actors’ fine performances are of course also invaluable in breathing life into the characters. I particularly enjoyed Jack Power and Melanie McHugh as the enthusiastic yet naïve Francis and pragmatic go-getter Kitty. Also worth mentioning is Ben Callon, who not only plays the mysterious figure of the ‘Trick Cyclist’, tying the fragments of the play together with songs, but puts on a range of minor characters complete with accents and funny walks as well.
Director Guy Jones’ take on the play is perfectly set in the Finborough’s intimate auditorium, which allows the spectators to feel included in every aspect of the show. Bethany Wells’ design evokes the store with simple means like bicycle wheels hanging from the ceiling, a roller blind instead of a door, and a bell that the actors ring themselves when they come into the shop. Space to move around is rather limited, as most of the floor is often filled with, surprise surprise, bikes, but thanks to the efforts of movement director Rachel Yates this looks genuine rather than awkward.
Writing this review I have taken into consideration the possibility that, as a Dutch person, I simply might be predisposed to loving shows about cycling. But even if that were true, it doesn’t take away from the fact (yes, I’m going to go with ‘fact’ here) that Spokesong is a brilliant piece of writing that’s been beautifully put on in a venue that’s absolutely perfect for it. So, hop on a Boris bike and go see it.
Author: Stewart Parker
Director: Guy Jones
Producer: Rebecca Targett
Designer: Bethany Wells
Booking Until: 10th June 2014 on Mondays, Tuesdays and Sundays only.
Box Office: 0844 847 1652
Booking Link: http://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/productions/2014/spokesong.php