It’s amazing how disarming Sean Mahoney is as a performer. We know he’s performing, and that he’s good at it, but at first it almost feels like he isn’t (performing). Mahoney’s script eschews many typical proxies for articulacy – speech just slightly hesitant; vocab kept within the lexicon of his teenage protagonist. A lot of drama uses its choice of register to announce: This Is A Clever Play. Mahoney-as-writer refuses to place himself in an intellectually superior position to Sean-as-character. He feels vulnerable.
But truth is, Until You Hear That Bell is a very clever play: its vernacular delivery and humble characterisation are all part of the plan. Once we invest our belief and sympathy in Sean, there is more jeopardy in the narrative of teenage ameteur boxing that comes afterwards. A lot of feelings creep up on us before we fully realise where we are in his story. Like a skilled sparring partner, Mahoney is always one step ahead, watching us catch up. It’s spellbinding. As Sean’s relationship with other characters (especially his father) become more complex, our feelings about it have sat with us for a long time before what has actually happened becomes clear.
This also applies to Sean’s evolving relationship with boxing itself. When he comes head-to-head with his first major opponent, Simon, Mahoney’s blow-by-blow account is so visceral and absorbing, I felt scared one of the boys would get hurt (even though there was definitely only one actor on-stage).
This segment, like a small number of others, is written and delivered with a highly rhythmic structure. But even this comes upon us so subtly, that you’d be forgiven for not explicitly noticing it, or the correspondingly high amount of internal rhyme. What you would notice, though, is the cadence shifting, the intensity escalating. It’s doing exactly what rhyme and meter in verse drama is meant to do, but foregrounding the effect rather than the technique. Rhyme usually draws attention to itself, but somehow Mahoney’s doesn’t, either because our investment in Sean’s progress as a character is so deep or because Mahoney keeps Sean’s register consistent. Either way, we lean forward into the character’s experience, rather than back to admire the writing.
The use of verse fulfils another function: it helps chart the growing confidence and control that Sean learns, both as boxer and boy. It reminds me of the way that the raps in Hamilton become faster and more sophisticated as its protagonists grow in stature. This reaches its peak as Mahoney delivers one portion of the monologue jumping an ever-faster skipping rope. His speech hits and hits and hits its mark as his feet do the floor.
All this means that we feel completely held within Sean’s narrowly encompassed world, which expands little beyond the gym, a cheap flat, the boxing ring and his school. This feels the right size, everything important. Very occasionally the script isn’t even quite as lean as you’d want: some exposition delivered via a family therapy session assumes we have pieced together less than we have about Sean’s parents.
At the end of Until You Hear That Bell, Mahoney shifts the setting – just once – in order to situate his history of teenage boxing in relationship to the walks of life he treads as a performer. Like almost everything in this compelling production, it lets us do a lot of the work. It presents a final image of stillness, and lets everything else dance around it, much like a boxer does when completely in charge of the ring.
Until You Hear That Bell is on until 26 August 2018 at Summerhall. Click here for more details.