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John Yap

Review: ON BLUEBERRY HILL at The Trafalgar Studios

On Blueberry Hill It is very rare when one chances upon a new Play of such poetic beauty and heart that grips right from the opening minutes and never lets go.

Sebastian Barry’s ON BLUEBERRY HILL, on at The Trafalgar Studios is such a Play. It arrives in London from New York and Dublin with no fanfare excepting for the unanimous reviews of 4 to 5 stars by critics in New York and Dublin.

The Play opens and closes with a rendition of the Fats Domino song Blueberry Hill. Barry changed a couple of words of the song for the closing moment of the play to put the title of the Play into context.

His notable previous plays that opened in London include OUR LADY OF SLIGO in 1998 at The National Theatre, THE STEWARD OF CHRISTENDOM in 1995 at The Royal Court and THE PRIDE OF PARNELL STREET in 2007 at The Tricycle Theatre. Since then he has been writing novels, the latest A THOUSAND MOONS was published this year.

His words are poetic and easily caress our senses. The opening monologue spoken by one of the characters, PJ, to inform us that he is apriest do not contain obvious words such as “church”, ‘religion” or “priest” instead he eulogizes about the “paper”.

“There I am – I can almost see myself – a young fella at Maynooth walking along the cinder path, under the host of beech trees. With my Gaelic Bible, the wind snatching at the flimsy paper. The paper like the stuff they used to wrap a loaf in, in a country shop. The yellowness of it. There was something in the paper that meant it was always yellow but I couldn’t tell you what. There must have been a factory somewhere. God knows where, in the midlands maybe, making that paper.”

Poetic writing flows throughout the whole play, here’s PJ describing the boy with whom he was in love: “There was nothing of the child in him, nothing of the man, like a marble statue, glowing, vibrant, but also frozen…eternal….If I could properly describe him I think everything would be understood. But God didn’t give us words for it.”

Christy the other character also delivers with such poetic words: here he is describing his wedding day: “….us all coming out into the late twilight of a Summer’s night, happy as larks with the skin full of beer and burnt chicken, oh yes, and the wide bay lying there before us like the bedclothes of God”.

The Play is essentially about anger, revenge and extreme violence and yet it manages to warm our hearts with the notions of forgiveness, redemption, friendship and ultimately love. This is not only due to the beautiful writing of Barrybut is aided by the supreme acting of David Ganly as PJ and Niall Buggy as Christy.

PJ and Christy are incarcerated in a prison cell together, having both committed a murder each.PJ was an ex-priest and Christy was a tinker. PJ is the younger of the two and both experienced deaths of one of their parents when they were young children. PJ was in love with a young seminarian, we do not know if that was a physical love or merely a romanticized one. PJ’s mother was violently murdered and Christy’s father was likewise killed in a fight.

Their life paths converge in the prison cell as a result of a deliberate act by a sadistic prison guard who is aware of their connection and situation. For the duration of the Play, PJ and Christy share with us in alternate monologues their childhood, their relationships with their loved ones, their memories of work, places and things.

There are lots of twists and turns in the Play and it would spoil the surprises should any more of the Play is revealed. In the 100 minutes, we have thegreatest pleasure of savouring the lovely nuanced acting and the delivery of Barry’s beautiful poetic writing by these two great Irish actors.

David Ganly’s gentle voice exudes a caressing comfort to one’s senses. Niall Buggy is no less arresting with his slightly rougher voice and delivery.

The sparse set of a bunk bed by Sabine Dargent and the simple but effective lighting by Mark Galione help set the atmosphere and space for Jim Culleton, the director, to grip and hold us in the Play’s characters’ nostalgia, comedy, violence, revenge, redemption, forgiveness, and ultimately love.

The Fishamble Company from Dublin should be lauded for bringing to London a Play of such poetic beauty with two supreme Irish actors and which is a pleasure to watch and listen to for the full 100 minutes.

Run to catch this warm, funny, poetic and beautiful Play at The Trafalgar Studios before it finishes on May 2.

On Blueberry Hill