First published in The Times, Thursday March 19 2015
Mention the papal visit to Scotland in May 1982 and the image that comes to mind is probably that of John Paul II saying mass for 300,000 Scottish Catholics in Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park. While that now legendary occasion forms the backdrop to this three-hander, presented by A Play, a Pie and a Pint in association with the Traverse Theatre, Martin McCormick, the playwright, astutely chooses to focus on those who were left behind or excluded on the day rather than the crowds waving banners in the park.
Pic: Leslie Black
So, as Culture Club’s Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? fades away, we meet Ranald (Nathan Byrne) and Barr (Keiran Gallagher), unlikely pals in the Catholic village of Croy, who, high on glue, are planning to steal a ceremonial chalice from the church before running away to Newcastle together. Both are outsiders in their own way. As a member of one of the few Protestant families in the village and a self-styled “atheist, anarchist punk”, Ranald has attracted the attention of local bullies, while Barr, the youngest member of a tough working class family, harbours a lonely crush on his best friend.
In the opening sequence, as the boys bicker over how best to prise open the tabernacle, McCormick appears to be setting the scene for a fairly light-hearted coming-of-age tale, with his youthful characters yearning to uproot themselves and forge new identities elsewhere. But the plot repeatedly wrong-foots its audience, allowing the playwright to deepen his exploration of prejudice and the ways in which we become trapped by our tribal identity. That the ending provokes shocked gasps from some parts of the auditorium is a measure of how invested it is possible to become in these characters.
While McCormick’s attempt to reconcile a pair of enduring social ills – namely sectarianism and homophobia – at times feels a little contrived, his willingness to dramatise these issues in unexpected ways confirms him (after last year’s excellent one-act play, Squash) as a talent to watch. Emma Callendar’s precise direction does justice to the playwright’s political reflections, while the piece also gains greatly from Gallagher’s sensitive performance as the unfortunate Barr who, tragically, seems doomed to remain the cuckoo in his family’s nest while others around him get to spread their wings and fly.
Box office: 0141 357 6200, to 21 Mar; transferring to Traverse, Edinburgh, 24-28 Mar (0131 228 1404)