Martin cannot sleep. Plagued by insomnia but unwilling to examine the cause of his condition, he is referred to a psychiatrist by his GP. Here, over the course of an hour long session, he reluctantly excavates his past, unearthing secrets that would give any of us sleepless nights.
Written and directed by Kat Woods and with Declan Perring taking on the role of Martin, Belfast Boy is a taut, fast moving production that manages to pack an awful lot of awfulness – arguably, too much – into its brief running time. From the outset we are aware a clock is ticking; this might be the first of 6 sessions Martin has been allocated, but we know this is our only chance to find out what so troubles this highly strung, overly people pleasing young man. And the answer is – what doesn’t? If you didn’t know the story was based on someone real, it would seem unbelievable that one life has managed to be touched by so much tragedy: child abuse, domestic and sectarian violence, bullying, crime, illness, disfiguring accidents, rape, prostitution and terrorism all get a mention, and it’s to Woods’ and Perring’s credit that this litany of misery doesn’t become overwhelming.
The piece isn’t completely successful in its ambitions – despite managing admirably to wring a fair amount of laughs from what could have been unremittingly depressing material, it tries to cram in too much, too fast, and at times it feels like it’s working through a checklist of Everything Terrible That Could Happen To One Person. The overly-abrupt ending robs us of any catharsis – our hour is up, and we’re left as cut adrift as the protagonist. What carries the play despite these limitations is a razor sharp script that isn’t afraid to embrace the absurdity that is all too often inherent in life’s tragedies, and a simply extraordinary performance by Perring.
His shrill, self-acclaimed ‘diva’ persona initially grates a little (he even brings his own soundtrack, a mash up of female singers he has saved on his iPhone and whips out at a moment’s notice and with no invitation), but as he peels away the self-protective layers of puppy dog enthusiasm and carefully constructed artifice, we see the man beneath the Madonna records, and it is impossible not to warm to him. Perring skillfully presents the emotionally unravelling Martin, while playing the key figures that have brought him to this office, from his adored, emphysema-ridden Mammy to Brummie bullies and the dead-eyed UVF ‘soldiers’ who predicated the family move to England. It’s a tremendously brave, physical performance, with Perring quite literally stripped (almost) bare at times, as we follow Martin from his Belfast childhood through a difficult and disjointed Birmingham adolescence, to the bright lights of the London party scene, none of which offer any solace to a boy always looking to belong.
From start to finish, even as the horrors unfold, he is still desperately ‘putting a brave face on it’, not wanting to incur the doctor’s judgement: we feel how much he craves acceptance even from this implacable, unseen figure and by extension, us, the audience. But ultimately, he wants it on his terms: he may desperately seek our approval, but he defies our pity, and it’s hard not to feel uplifted by such obstinate courage, even if you are left wishing he himself would recognize it as such.