A grim concrete wall awaits the audience as they enter the theatre; it’s stained with urine and boasts an array of graffiti: the words I.R.A., LIBERATE! and one rage-filled, indiscriminate FUCK. Mike Lees’ set also features a rough depiction of male genitalia, managing to be simultaneously rudimentary and explicit. This is a scorched landscape, shattered by bomb blasts, and fortified with corrugated iron, sporting a generous tangle of barbed wire.
This is Belfast, the summer of 1970, the height of the Troubles, and this wall is the embodiment of separation, and a pretty good indicator of the danger of this neighbourhood. Against this backdrop of conflict, two young boys – one Protestant, one Catholic – strike up a friendship. Sharing an obsession with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Mojo, from up the road, and Mickybo, from over the bridge, spend their time going to the ‘flicktures’, skimming stones, smoking their first ‘fegs’, rolling down hills and going on adventures to Bolivia (for which read: Newcastle, County Down). There world is one in which bombings are an everyday occurrence and the news of a boy’s leg being blown off barely raises an eyebrow; the youngsters play at fighting, engaging in warfare against the local thugs, Gank The Wank and Fuckface. Owen McCafferty’s 1998 play depicts the horror of life in Northern Ireland at this time through the eyes of children, and the very real violence of the setting gives this play about childhood, growing up and the loss of innocence a very sinister undertone.
Iarla McGowan and Roger Thomson play not only Mojo and Mickybo but, between the two of them, another 15 small parts. The actors are at ease as the young boys, capturing their enthusiasm and lack of guile without being demonstrative or slipping into caricature. This is due in part to the direction of Emily Jenkins, who conveys the energy of childhood well in this a hugely physical piece. She has McGowan and Thomson relentlessly sprinting, rolling, tumbling, jumping, and throwing themselves across the stage, the sweat soaking through their shirts testament to the vigour of their performances. And the text doesn’t give them a break either; McCafferty’s funny, at times, keenly poignant dialogue hurtles along at breakneck speed, and the actors barely have time to catch their breath as they swing seamlessly between characters – often playing two roles at once.
In one polished sequence, they play Mojo and Mickybo having a fight with Gank The Wank and Fuckface, taking and receiving blows alternately as both sets of characters, in a fast-paced, frenzied, but neatly choreographed and skilfully executed battle. They’re at their most touching as the respective parents of the two boys, the animosity of these troubled marriages neatly mirroring the savage discord of the world outside.
Moving, tender, but never sentimental, McCafferty’s play hides its bleakness behind a curtain of laughs. But sectarian violence is never far from the surface and the real world threatens the idyll of childhood from the sidelines. Jenkins gets this balance just right.