The Border Game – Lyric Theatre – Review
by Cathy Brown
The Border Game by Michael Patrick and Oisín Kearney – A Prime Cut and Lyric Theatre Production
Sat 2—Sat 23 Oct 2021
Prime Cut Productions make a welcome return to the Main Stage of the Lyric Theatre collaborating on The Border Game, a timely, funny and moving new play by Michael Patrick and Oisín Kearney which explores the impact of the Northern Irish border on those who live along it in the centenary year of its creation. Based on interviews with residents on both sides of the 300-mile-long partition, The Border Game is Patrick and Kearny’s first stage play since the television success of their debut work, My Left Nut.
The Border Game explores the relationship between Protestant Henry (Patrick McBrearty) and Catholic Sinead (Liz Fitzgibbon), an estranged couple from opposite sides of the Fermanagh-Leitrim border. A chance meeting in a borderland field next to an old customs hut leads the pair to literally and metaphorically mend fences as they banter, argue and rehash their past.
Patrick and Kearney’s borderland is liminal space, a place whose exact outlines are hard to trace, played out on Ciaran Bagnall’s rooted yet mysterious set. This is an area prone to judgment and prejudice because of its contentious place at the heart of the Troubles. Yet, instead of using the backdrop of the conflict in Northern Ireland to create a worthy ‘cross-community’ drama, The Border Game embraces physical comedy and surrealism to drive home its message.
As you would expect from a work based on real-life testimony, the play touches on issues like Integrated Education, the sea border, the Irish Language Act and the implications of the early release of prisoners under the Good Friday Agreement. However, it does so in an elusive and ingenious manner making nice use of vignettes of performed recollections to draw out its themes. The pair play at cattle smugglers, Crufts announcers and most successfully, their younger selves, with the recreation of their first dancefloor meeting being worth the ticket price alone.
Patrick McBrearty and Liz Fitzgibbon are in their element with the exuberant yet thoughtful script. Fitzgibbon excels as the single mother trying to juggle the needs of her child, her elderly parents and the land upon which they live. Patrick McBrearty, always a charismatic and solid performer, shines here, relishing the farcical, physical comedy but smart enough to explore the vulnerability of his character which exists underneath the blustery exterior.
The shift in tone in the second half is handled with skill and sensitivity and the pair bring a real emotional heft to the material, even if the ending doesn’t fully deliver on what has come before.
The strength of these performances is due in part to the nimble direction of Emma Jordan, who handles the plays’ shifts in tone and leaps from reality to fantasy with a sensitive touch. The physicality of the production is subtle yet the two actors are always in harmony, with their spontaneous playfulness underpinned by some impressively tight movement choreography created by Dylan Quinn.
‘Why does living where you’re from have to be a political act?’ rails Henry as he comes to terms with the series of events that have pulled this couple apart. An imaginary game of Stick in the Mud provides the strongest and most devastating analogy for these lives and these people who are tethered to the trauma of their past, torn between the need to remember and the need to move on.
Patrick and Kearney, along with Emma Jordan, are clever enough not to use this production to sermonise on the situation along the border today, instead, they use a very human relationship to emphasise the still recognisable themes of insularity and stagnation. The Border Game is a humorous, insightful and timely meditation on a place that has changed beyond recognition in the last 100 years, but still has a long way to go. Prime Cut and the Lyric Theatre have created a humane and heartfelt drama – one that allows the work of these young playwrights to shine through the perfectly judged performances.