Stewart Parker wrote Spokesong about the lives within a bicycle repair shop in Belfast when fighting in Ireland was at worst, in 1975. It is set a year after Bloody Sunday. For such a serious subject matter, it is perhaps not the appropriate reaction to find a large part of the night rather bizarre. A touch of the surreal confuses and, at other times, enhances what is at heart a play about a dreamer, clinging all the more tightly onto his ideals even as they are threatened.
The confusing bit. There are two generations of Stocks who owned the shop. We see their courtships and romances play out, with Frank (Stephen Cavanagh) and Daisy Bell (Elly Condron) today’s couple and Frank’s grandparents Kitty (Melanie McHugh) and Francis (Jack Power) from World War One. But Kitty is in Victorian dress and it’s never completely explained that this intergenerational time-lapse effect is what is happening. We thought there were just various characters wandering about in odd choices of clothing. However, the strange moments also delight, particularly the songs of the ‘Trick Cyclist’ (Ben Callon). His renditions of country and westerns and mournful ballads add an indefinable something to the night. He has a wonderful voice.
The play excels where the violence and demands of the present clash with the gentle ideals of Frank, quickly becoming as outdated as his grandfather’s war clothes. Brother Julian (Paul Mallon) is twitchy and brash; fresh from photographing war-ravaged scenes outside in his job as photojournalist, he has no time for Frank’s musings. Visually, too, there are some moments that send shivers. The screeches of metal that transform the refuge into torture chamber – the horror of the streets spelling doom for the shop’s future.
If you’re tempted by Spokesong because of its interesting Troubles subject matter, then prepare to be disappointed. It rarely brings home the sense of the time, lost as it is in confusing character plots and costume changes and songs. But when it does, it shines, and the surreal also added a smile to our faces more than once.
We saw this show on a complimentary press ticket.