It’s tempting to recall something theatrical about Bang Bang, the elderly man who staged shoot-outs on the streets of Dublin throughout the 1950s and ’60s. “Bang bang,” he cried at passers-by, aiming a large brass key like a Colt pistol.
Ever since, the figure originally named Thomas Dudley has been embraced in Dublin folklore as a character adored for his harmless eccentricity. But Dermot Bolger’s vivid new monologue for Bewley’s Café Theatre, in association with Axis Ballymun, suspects a neglected life overlooked by the masses. We find Bang Bang (Pat McGrath) in a care home near the end of his life, opening his eyes: “I see you, after years of you seeing me.”
That sounds more confrontational than it is. Bolger quickly ushers us to a Dublin reimagined as a lawless frontier town (“from Wyoming to Whitehall”). We follow a nomadic Bang Bang as he outsmarts snobs on the high street and defends city buses through dangerous gorges. In performance, McGrath swings thrillingly between roguish determination and childish innocence. The plot paces well under director Mark O’Brien’s swift direction.
Eventually, the curlicues of Bang Bang’s imagination lead us to a starkly darker reality – the impoverished living conditions of vulnerable people and the emergent signs of a heroin epidemic. Bolger seems to be emphasising the right to care but, sadly, that in itself has a conspicuous history in Ireland. The arrival of a nun to Bang Bang’s bedsit sends him back to his childhood in an orphanage, a place we’d now recognise as a certifiable prison.
Though written through the solemn lens of post-Catholic historicism, Bolger presents this biography as an adventure story. A mock shoot-out on the playground gives birth to a defiant character. A cruel disciplinarian is cast as a life-long nemesis. After we leave the orphanage, the discovery of a cinema is gorgeously staged with the glow of the screen and full of the magic of self-invention.
It seems important to remember Bang Bang as a survivor of abuse. Yes, Bolger’s writing of his story like a Western, while dutiful, less resembles a portrayal of trauma by the final shootout, leaving O’Brien’s production wrapped in little other than reassuring roguery. But that optimism may be the best light in which to see Bang Bang: despite the overwhelming odds, he could always outdraw the rest of them.
Bang Bang is at Bewley’s Theatre Café until December 23rd. For more details, click here.