Alice (played by Abigail McGibbon) is the only Green MLA in the NI Assembly, and [suspending disbelief for ninety minutes] is a minister in the Executive. She’s a moody, fiery, workaholic, vodka-drinking politician who is willing to entertain all kinds of extreme dietary measures in pursuit of a baby. She’s struggling to build support for a GM bill with the help of Sinn Féin and an independent unionist. [Thank goodness for independent unionists, eh?]
Her husband of thirteen years Martin (Paul Kennedy) is not enjoying his fertility-enhancing diet of blueberries. And he’s not convinced about the eco measures that surround him at home. He published a controversial book on the Irish Famine a few years ago but now has writer’s block. Looking for inspiration, he takes a job in the Trauma Centre, transcribing victim’s stories and filling out funding applications.
“Keep it live. Keep it living. Keep it up so we keep our jobs” (Danny)
Danny (played very straight by Conor Grimes) runs the Trauma Centre complete with its story rooms, facials, and an emphasis that everyone is a victim and everyone has to have a story. A slippery character with his own part in the conflict, victim-speak flows smoothly from his mouth. Yet while the centre is imbued with “an atmosphere of mutual regard” Danny is quite racist, misogynist and passive aggressive to the point of threatening.
Into this mix of GM crops, conception and victims comes an old school friend and PR professional Claire (Tara Lynne O’Neill). She brings both friendship and conflict to Alice and Martin’s already tense marriage and professional lives as she uses all her powers to get what she wants.
The play has a very contemporary feel. The costumes are high street – there’s more than a touch of Arlene Foster in Alice’s wardrobe – and the issues are real. There are references to watering holes in Belfast as well as the foibles of current Executive ministers.
A bed of ambient music runs underneath most of the scenes. Ciaran Bagnall’s set is incredible with its sliding walls made of transparent fishing line. Imagery (designed by Conan McIvor) projected onto the walls seeps through onto the surfaces behind. The multi-layer set matches the multi-layer plot.
At times I felt that the play was being acted out in the dark, though the gloom certainly matches the melancholy feel of the play as the characters live with regrets about their past and face up to their uncertain futures.
A bit like a Bond film, Planet Belfast too seemed to have a whole succession of endings. If there’d been a power cut at any point in the last ten minutes, the current scene could have served as the last. And when the finale was reached, perhaps the dark tale deserved a darker conclusion.
Strong performances from the cast, many laugh-out-loud moments (if you dare), a fantastic set and great use of the word “langered” make it a play worth seeing. As part of the Backin’ Belfast campaign, the promo code ‘Planet’ may reduce ticket prices down to £10.
Planet Belfast has strong language throughout and more than a flash of thigh at one point. Less-than-liberal DUP supporters may find it neither comfortable nor funny; Green Party supporters may wonder what happened to Steven Agnew; and victims’ groups may be offended by the characterisation of their ‘industry’.
But the issues are real, even if the drama is fictional.
(Photos by Neil Harrison.)