The Blue Boy – Project Arts Centre – Review

The Blue Boy as part of 2011 Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival.

The Blue Boy – Project Arts Centre – Review by Paddy McG

Brokentalkers Theatre Company’s production of Blue Boy has lost none of its edge or relevance since its original staging in 2011. Devised and directed by Gary Keegan and Feidlim Cannon, it reflects upon the issues thrown up by the Ryan and McAleese reports into the treatment of children in reformatories, industrial schools and Magdalene Laundries run by the Catholic church from the earliest years of the state until relatively recent times. A merely factual summary of the subject matter, however, does scant justice to this riveting theatrical experience, combining freshness of approach, flexibility of structure and endless variety of technique and medium.

Patrick Kavanagh’s description of “mechanised scarecrows” comes to mind as distressed and despairing children, like automatons, go through routine tasks, such as making rosary beads to be sold at Lourdes. Hemmed in by the huge wall that dominates the stage, their movements and body language resemble those of disoriented wild animals in a 1950’s zoo. In the overall context, such a comparison does not seem too far off the mark. Bullying is rampant and abuse –physical, emotional and sexual – is the norm.

Footage of the Eucharistic Congress, 1932, shows hundreds of little boys marching in mini-brigades, while little girls in communion dresses walk backwards, strewing flowers before the feet of prelates parading in their elaborately embroidered finery. Counterpointing images, such as 800 boys in a stark, institutional refectory in Artane, or the recorded voice of an inmate in Goldenbridge describing the cruelty of the regime run by the nuns there, highlight the contrast between the lives of those who lived on either side of “The Wall” and who experienced the two extremes of that woolliest of phrases, the Catholic ethos.

Footage of de Valera seated prominently among a sea of elaborately robed clergy clerical calls to mind James Joyce’s sardonic “Oh Ireland my first and only love/ Where Christ and Caesar are hand in glove”. Indeed, that the Catholic church reflected Irish society in general is illustrated so economically by an excerpt from an RTE television interview between Liam O Murchú and Christian Brother Joe O’Connor who ran the Artane Boys’ band and against whom serious allegations were made after his death. Agreeing that he deserved his reputation as “a strict disciplinarian”, the brother received a warm round of applause from the audience, whose beaming smiles and nods of approval were picked up by the camera. The interviewer’s obsequious smiles and body language bore out what was said by an uncredited interviewee (Pasty McGarry?) about the unquestioning reverence and deference accorded to Catholic clergy in general.

The recorded first-hand accounts of elderly men and women are powerful in their relative restraint, simply stating their experiences, their words sometimes projected onto a gauze screen in a dated typeface as from an old printed report, such a simple device, yet so effective.  Some accounts are juxtaposed against dramatised representations by the five masked performers, their masks suggesting that these are not individual characters but representing “Everychild”.

There are sobering reminders that some of what we are seeing is not that far in the past. A statement from Patrick Cooney, Minister for Justice, in 1974 tells us how Irish society believes that “the illegitimate child” is better off in institutions than “brought up by its own mother”.  The effect is chilling. We see and hear Frances Fitzgerald speaking at the launch of the McAleese Report – a reassuring voice where one is badly needed as images of Cardinal Sean Brady and others whiz by. On the publication of the Cloyne report, Enda Kenny told the Dail that “the rape and torture of children were downplayed” in favour of upholding the primacy of the power, standing and reputation of the church. He asserted on behalf of the people of Ireland that “arrogance of a particular version of a particular kind of morality will no longer be tolerated or ignored.” Brokentalkers edit and adapt their presentations with each revival. Perhaps the inclusion of Kenny’s speech was considered too close to political commentary in the present political context but it should surely be considered for inclusion in any future revival breathing, as it did, new life into that most hackneyed line “all’s changed, changed utterly”.  At least where silence and subservience to clerical abuses is concerned, it has: what better curtain line could the show hope for than Kenny’s?

The performers, Dylan Coburn Gray, Megan Connolly, Jessica Kennedy, Aoife Moore and Eddie Kay, do not speak – like the silence-bound children they portray. Theatrically, dialogue is rendered redundant by the superb choreography, mime, stylised movement (by Eddie Kay) and the tight direction by Keegan and Cannon. Snatches of old film footage, a subtle and varied soundscape by Jack Cawley and original music by Sean Millar and lighting by Sarah Jane Shiels combine with some contemporary commentary and intermittent narration by Gary Keegan to produce an experience of engaged theatre-making at its best.

Do not be put off by the dark, disturbing content, even less by the fact that The Blue Boy is not a play. The show gives cause for optimism where the central issues are concerned. It is conceived with clarity, performed with assurance, works the head as well as the heart and is an important show in every sense.



Weds 30th March – Sat 2nd April | The Everyman Cork | 8pm – €20/18/€9 | 021 450 1673

Fri 8th – Sat 9th April | Project Arts Centre Dublin | 8pm – €20/18 | 01 8819 613

Sat 16th April | The Lyric Theatre Belfast | 8pm – £15 | 028 9038 1081

Tues 19th April |Pavilion Theatre Dún Laoghaire | 8pm – €18/14 | 01 231 2929

Weds 27th April | Town Hall Theatre Galway| 8pm – €18/15 | 091 569 777

Fri 29th April | Droichead Arts Centre| 8.30pm




Categories: Header, Theatre, Theatre Review

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