Theatre Review: The Boat Factory (King’s Head Theatre, London)

"Don't stand and wonder how to do it - do it, and wonder how you did it." Dan Gordon (left) and Michael Condron (right). Photograph: Courtesy of the production

“Don’t stand and wonder how to do it – do it, and wonder how you did it.” Dan Gordon (left) and Michael Condron (right). Photograph: Courtesy of the production

Rating: *****

Belfast, for many, is a place of infamy; whether it’s because it’s the city that built the fated Titanic, or recollections wander towards “The Troubles”. But it’s so easy to forget that behind these grandiose preconceptions lay actual lives and families. Dan Gordon lived in the shadow of the domineering Harland & Wolff shipyard, and his father actually worked there. He has teamed up with Happenstance theatre company to produce this two-hander looking at the life of a young apprentice, Davy Gordon, and the people he meets and the friends he makes.

It’s a very simply show. Gordon is joined by only one other actor, Michael Condron. Between them they play Davy and his fellow apprentice Geordie Kilpatrick respectively, as well as a whole host of other characters. There is nothing more to the set and props other than two bits of scaffolding, a few raised levels, a cyclorama made up of a plan of the shipyard, and two hats. But the entire thing is less of a play and more a piece of storytelling, meaning that what’s actually happening on the stage is unimportant as it’s all in the mental imagery that these two conjure.

Gordon and Condron shifting in and out of different characters at the beginning of it all takes a moment to settle into. But it’s not difficult, and once you’re there, you find you’re suddenly plunged deep into the heart of post-war Northern Ireland, with these two fine actors stoking your imagination into recreating their world with vivid fascination. As character actors go, these guys are supreme. They effortlessly change from one persona to another, in mannerism, voice, and physicality. Condron, in particular, is especially masterful at this skill playing everything from an effeminate shoe shop boy to a bullying and violent foreman, without you ever quite realising that it always just him channelling these different characters. This peculiar ability makes everyone Davy meets, and therefore you meet too, seem wholly real and believable, cumulating into making the show incredibly absorbing.

The utterly immersive quality of the show is helped by Gordon’s rich text. The characters’ descriptions of the boat yard and its workers are so beautifully written that even if all you’ve seen of it are the pictures in the programme, you suddenly find yourself caught up in a mental image that’s incredibly tangible. These are also helped by some brilliant sound from Chris Warner and Gareth McLees, whether it’s subtle bits of composed music to augment a scene from Warner, or a sense of energy, drive, and rhythm from McLees’ percussion.

But ultimately, it’s Gordon’s modest and insightful accounts of Davy, Geordie, and the rest, that really clinches it. They’re ordinary folk who enjoy simple pleasures. They’re not melodramatic, they’re not caricatures, and neither are they outright heroes or villains. They’re just people. However, Geordie’s slightly more profound and left-of-centre look on life, as a result of the effects of childhood Polio, gives an enrapturing curiosity to the story: something which, as Davy gets swept up in himself, you can’t help but be totally beguiled by.

Despite all its earthliness, it’s still an incredibly high romantic look at the yard’s history: an incredibly fond remembrance more than anything else. But that by no manner means that the piece is self-indulgent or shallow. In fact, Gordon tempers his tale into something that can be universally understood, connected to, and engage with, by seamlessly weaving mentions of Herman Melville’s masterpiece Moby Dick to devastating effect, making pristine crossover of its bleak imagery and themes. It magnificently augments the overall tragedy of the lost lives and the catastrophes that went on in the shipyard, that we unfortunately also bear witness to and feel the effects of during the course of the show.

But nonetheless, it would be impossible to create a piece about Northern Ireland without the use of Ulster humour. Cheeky, wry, and sometimes a bit bawdy, as well as being swept up in the high emotion of the piece there are also plenty of moments where you’ll laugh just as hard as you’ll cry.

The result is a dizzying and heart-shattering piece of theatre. Seldom does a play captivate you with its very essence of drama so quickly and so completely as this does. Achingly moving, endearingly human, and brutally honest, The Boat Factory is a show that is an astonishing and enduring portrait of those who worked at world’s most famous, yet infamous, shipbuilders. Do NOT miss it.

The Boat Factory runs at the King’s Head Theatre, London, N11QN, until 17 August 2013. Tickets are £20.50 – £25.00 (concessions available). To book visit http://www.kingsheadtheatre.com.

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