As the audience settles into the intimate 50-seater, black box studio space at the Finborough, Matthew, played by Matthew Blarney, is waiting for us. Sitting at a kitchen table, occasionally nibbling at a bit of toast, he is absorbed in rehearsing something. It’s not unheard of for actors to be on stage before the beginning of a piece but Blarney is in situ for a decent amount of time. I really liked this: after a few minutes the audience just got used to it and carried on around him. He becomes familiar and we’re included in the action. Then the lights dim and an Elvis Presley tune erupts, a fresh energy is introduced and the play proper commences.
It’s the day after Matthew’s father’s funeral in Belfast and he is rehearsing for his big audition at RADA. He needs to catch a plane to London in a couple of hours and is understandably nervous as well as conflicted about leaving his mother so soon after his father’s death. Having decided to use Richard III’s opening monologue, he has adopted odd mannerisms in an attempt to mimic a hunchback. Abandoning his natural Northern Irish accent, he adopts an English voice and it’s not great. In walks his uncle Ray (Stephen Kennedy), a painter and decorator by trade. He’s keen to offer help and advice with little understanding or experience of Shakespeare, or acting in general. It doesn’t go well.
What follows is a cleverly structured and well written story. It explores family relationships, secrets, truths and hidden desires. Pain and uncertainty is delivered alongside proper laugh out loud humour. Identity is key: writer David Ireland has previously said that he is only writing for a Belfast audience. Nonetheless this exploration of self – the guilt of leaving home, with the precariousness of being on your own in a new city, and the imperfect normality of family with generations reacting against each other – resonates with everyone. The writing is excellent as it flows mellifluously between states of mind. It’s true, of course, that in this example being Northern Irish is critical. Matthew, a young man in real time, is resolutely British. Ray on the other hand, older, and having lived through the Troubles, has a different view. It doesn’t matter because what is created is a touching, familiar and very funny portrayal of growing up and trying to find an identity that fits.
The intimacy of this lovely venue means that the actors are in touching distance. Kennedy’s prowess is exemplary. His eyes mist over in the most touching of moments and it’s hard as an audience member not to follow suit.
The set is well designed and is centred around a breakfast-strewn kitchen table. Simultaneously complementing the family dynamic and drawing the audience in, it also humorously highlights the generational differences as Ray teases Matthew for his ‘gourmet’ coffee in a cafetière.
At the end a truce is made, borne of revelations and secrets shared. And it’s credible. Matthew has one final go at his audition piece, but this time in his natural vernacular and it works and is powerful. No one is suggesting that this is the end of all identify conflict, but it is nonetheless an important step in acceptance.
And then, just when the revelations could get too emotional, Elvis Presley closes the piece with a bang. Joyous, powerful and emotional. And I’m not even an Elvis fan.
Written by: David Ireland
Directed by: Max Elton
Produced by: Sarah Roy
Presented by 19th Street Productions in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre.
Not Now plays at Finborough Theatre until 26 November. Further information and bookings can be found here.