Monday June 17, 2024
ULSTER AMERICAN
Review

ULSTER AMERICAN

By Diana Simmonds
May 19 2024

ULSTER AMERICAN, Outhouse Theatre at the Ensemble, 17 May-8 June 2024. Photography by Prudence Upton

In 2018 David Ireland’s Ulster American was a huge hit at the Edinburgh Festival. In 2019 that Traverse Theatre production had a similar effect at the Adelaide Festival. Back then, Brexit was the UK’s overwhelming preoccupation, while the #MeToo movement had captured the imaginations and collective rage of women globally and both are referenced, obliquely and head on.

Then along came the seemingly endless black hole of the pandemic and its aftermath. That’s when Jeremy Waters, through his independent company Outhouse Theatre, staged this production at the Seymour Centre. Yet again it was a hit, directed by Shane Anthony, with a brilliant cast of Waters, Brian Meegan, and Harriet Gordon-Anderson.

The Ensemble’s artistic director Mark Kilmurry grabbed it for his theatre and, on a chilly May 2024 evening, Ulster American galvanized the opening night audience into that rare pleasure: sustained laughter interspersed with gasps of shock, horror, and delight for 80 minutes of scintillating entertainment.

On the surface, it’s simple enough: in an important step towards his dream of eventually becoming boss of the National Theatre, director Leigh Carver (Brian Meegan) has enticed Hollywood mega-star Jay Conway (Jeremy Waters) to London and his house. Next day, they are due to begin rehearsals for Jay’s West End debut (and ancestral ego trip) in a tough new play about “The Troubles” by Belfast’s rising talent, Ruth Davenport (Harriet Gordon-Anderson).

ULSTER AMERICAN

While they await the late arrival of the playwright Jay slurps on a Diet Coke – twelve steps, phone check-ins with his sponsor, etc – and Leigh sips a big glass of red as his anxiety grows. He’s accustomed to working with civilised British actors and his world turns upside down as it becomes apparent that Jay is not an actor as such, but A Star.

It’s at this point that an eye patch is brought into the action in a sly nod to Chekhov’s Gun. And as if one gun isn’t enough, there’s Jay Oscar (yes, it travels with him). So, when Ruth eventually arrives – delayed by a traffic accident that has hospitalised her mother – the collision between Malibu and the Shankhill Road is an even bigger crash.

The clash – of the personal, the political, and a fresh set of (a)moral imperatives – somehow finds sharp focus in outrageous humour, clever plotting, and three exquisitely unlikeable characters. Even more remarkable, this production highlights the lasting qualities of the play because what originally gave it shock value is now ancient history. The spotlight has long moved on from Brexit and #MeToo and the universal themes that remain to provoke gasps and guffaws. These are alternately serious and hilarious. A clue to the wicked comedy can be guessed at by self-declared feminist Jay arguing with equally-certain feminist Leigh that the Bechdel Test was the work of a man. And while the audience is chortling at this and other outrages, all are banjaxed by the discovery that Ruth voted for Brexit and refuses to be labeled Irish.

The production is dynamic, partly because of how director Shane Anthony works with the actors and partly because of the tight confines of the Ensemble stage. Brian Meegan’s nuanced, uptight would-be auteur begs the question of why he’s so rarely seen on stages other than the Ensemble’s. The role of Ruth is possibly the least interesting on the page and it’s a tribute to Harriet Gordon-Anderson that she imbues her with the eye-watering sass of a gang of Derry Girls.

ULSTER AMERICAN

As The Star, Jeremy Waters is a black-clad, swaggering ego whose misplaced self-belief is excruciatingly demonstrated when he gives what he believes is his perfect Belfast accent. Of the creative team, accent coach Linda Nicholls-Gidley has ensured that Ruth sounds authentically Northern Irish, while Leigh is all lemon-lipped Received Pronunciation and Jay’s American bray briefly dissolves into an ear-aching approximation of Armagh.

Veronique Benett’s set and lighting are successfully shared with the other current production – a very fine Switzerland, see review below – with subtle changes that say a lot for the designer’s ingenuity.

In short: laugh out loud, be shocked, gasp, and laugh some more. Recommended without reservation.

 

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