The dark side of the moon landing

Richard Dormer’s Irish-American gangster play orbits around a jukebox, violence and some brutal characters

Left to right, Ronan Leahy, Ciaran O'Brien and Phelim Drew in Drum Bell. Photograph:  Julien Behal/PA Wire

Left to right, Ronan Leahy, Ciaran O'Brien and Phelim Drew in Drum Bell. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA Wire

Sat, Jan 18, 2014, 11:35

Drum Belly
Abbey Theatre, Dublin
***

Who is the central character of Richard Dormer’s new play for the Abbey, set among Irish-American gangsters in 1969 Brooklyn? Don’t be misled by the title (a character’s nickname), which works better as a safety warning: some scenes require a strong stomach. (The production is so bloody that Paul Wills’s concrete slab of a set actually includes a sluice.)

Otherwise, “Drum Belly” is Liam Carney’s hoodlum Harvey Marr, whose prickly sense of heritage and itchy trigger finger open proceedings with a squelchy scene of dismemberment. Yet the play doesn’t belong to him (he absconds for most of it). Nor does it belong to Declan Conlon’s commanding crime boss, Gulliver Sullivan, who seems to own everything else: 200 blocks of Brooklyn; the most evocatively named New York gang since the Jets disbanded (Johnny “the Fox” Rourke, Willy
“Wicklow” Hill); the Brooklyn police chief; and all the most significant lines.

“I have come to believe that in exile a man finds his true nature,” Conlon softly tells his mute charge Bobby (Ryan McParland) in a play about self-definition and displacement.

In terms of stage time and direct influence, though, the main character is really a 1960s jukebox. Wheeled on regularly to deliver Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Stooges and era-indicating rock at enjoyably high decibel, director Sean Holmes recognises it not just as a nostalgic device (although it’s certainly that), or a sign of intermingling cultures, but as the guiding logic of this briskly hopping, episodic play.

The impending moon landing, and the dark side of brutal “unseen” acts, makes a more lyrical metaphor for Dormer’s concerns. “I know a lot of men here who pine for it and they’ve never even been there,” says Sullivan, without distinguishing between Ireland and the barren rock. But with no clear trajectory, both the play and production seem in orbit, spinning slightly out of control.

Its most winning sequence, an invention of Holmes’s, involves three gang members – Ronan Leahy, Phelim Drew and Ciarán O’Brien, all great – breaking into a perfectly choreographed dance, but that stylistic rupture is never repeated. For all the expressed importance of a code (artfully explained, in O’Brien’s fine performance, with a hamburger), the play doesn’t possess one.

It is most absorbing in what David Ganly’s well-informed henchman calls “the filigree”, Dormer’s decorative detail, such as an awed discussion about how the phrases “so long” or “sucker” came from Irish. (“I’m feeling a small pang of pride here,” admits Gary Lydon’s cop.) But it falls down with a much more perfunctory sense of structure and abrupt narrative, as Dormer brings his exiles back to earth with a bump. The sheer energy, noise and momentum of the show is endlessly exciting, but it feels like a 90-minute prelude to a play that never comes, sending us home with such a pat resolution, it feels like a swindle.

The Irish have a saying for that – so long, sucker.
Until May 11th