On Blueberry Hill (Online review)

On Blueberry Hill (Online review)

With final legal pandemic restrictions being lifted today it seemed an appropriate choice last night to watch a couple of people existing in almost permanent lockdown. Sebastian Barry’s play On Blueberry Hill is set in Dublin’s Mountjoy prison- however bad it has been at least most of us don’t face that. The play has enjoyed a good level of success over the last few years and is now a filmed version playing online as part of the Traverse Theatre’s contribution to the Edinburgh Festival. It is described on the Fringe website as “new writing” – hardly that as it has been around since at least 2017. The production is from Irish company Fishamble and is directed in a devastatingly slow burn fashion by Jim Culleton.

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The author’s winning way with language and two superb performances belie the rather melodramatic nature of the piece and what I found to be a slightly awkward structuring of the plot. PJ and Christie are two prisoners locked up for committing murder; they are both guilty and more than ready to admit it. They speak in alternating monologues starting with some reminiscences from their younger days before moving onto the tragedies that blighted their lives and of those who had to deal with the consequences of their actions. Gradually a link emerges between them which gives the play a shocking twist and a sharper edge but does stretch credulity to breaking point.

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As the two characters never so much as acknowledge each other by a look, I thought at first that the set was a composite one and that these were prisoners in two different cells, perhaps even in two different prisons. I even began to wonder whether these were supposed to be metaphorical prisons of the mind although, as their crimes were shockingly revealed I soon ditched that theory. As the pair’s stories began to coalesce it became apparent that they were indeed cellmates, thrown together by the heartless contrivance of (unseen) prison guard McAlister who knew their history full well and has placed them together simply so he can witness some sort of blood sport as the men are known sworn enemies. This is where it is over contrived; while I can just about buy the idea that an evil prison guard would act in this way, I couldn’t dispel the feeling that someone in higher authority would step in and separate the pair knowing their intermingled history. Sorry, if I seem rather coy about this aspect but it is done deliberately; if you are planning to watch this, you wouldn’t want an absolutely central plot point to be revealed here. Given the rather static nature of the play – only as the lights go to blackout at the end is there a moment of connection – it is remarkable that it holds the attention. This is largely down to two factors.

The performances are riveting and are what stitch the piece together. Niall Buggy is the older, more cynical Christie a still untamed wild spirit who has reacted to personal tragedy with violence and a thirst for revenge. David Ganly as PJ was once an aspiring priest but found himself attracted to a fellow student. He couldn’t face up to the consequences of this and responded with an action that set the wheels of catastrophe in motion for both of them. The final section of the play reveals that the two men have found a rapport and even a bond with each other and if the ending is all a bit too neat it somehow suits the style of the piece. The other big asset is Barry’s language which is lyrically poetic and draws on the vernacular to stunning effect: “He had an accent that could mash spuds” was a favourite line. The set (Sabine Dargent) reinforces the literary nature of the play consisting of separate pages from a book with just the pair’s bunkbed in the foreground.

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On Blueberry Hill references the song made famous by Fats Domino in the late 1950s, though – QI fact – it was first performed by singing cowboy Gene Autry in a 1940 movie. It’s a song that looks back to happier times, something which PJ and Christie can relate to. In fact, today as we emerge blinking into the sunlight of a new post Covid era perhaps it’s something that we can relate to as well. Stay well!

p08py364Today’s bonus Scenes For Survival piece: 68 Months In Waiting by Nelly Kelly concerns an imaginary future where non-binary people have been shipped off to a remote island to fend for themselves. Afton Moran monologues from a tent; it starts promisingly but drifts into redundancy

On Blueberry Hill is available via the Edinburgh Fringe Festival click here

Scenes For Survival pieces are available from the NTS website – click here; a number are also available on BBC iPlayer – click here

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For my Theatre Online list (suggestions and news of newly released productions) please click here. This list is supplemented by daily updates on Twitter (@johnchapman398

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