Lyric Theatre, Belfast
Belfast in the early 1980s was a perilous place and time. With random violence on the streets and political negotiations in a downward spiral, everyday life, particularly in besieged working class areas, was a minefield, while within the leafy cloisters of academia a sanity of sorts prevailed.
These are the contrasting worlds occupied by Rita and Frank, respectively a hairdresser and an academic, whose paths cross when she makes a courageous break for personal freedom and self-improvement via an Open University course. It is taught by a cynical alcoholic who has taken on extra-curricular work to fund his escalating habit. Over the course of an academic year, the two trade roles and aspirations, with Rita hell bent on pursuing an upward trajectory into the bohemian milieu from which Frank takes refuge in books and drink.
And all the while, as the jarring interventions of news broadcasts testify, the politicians go on talking, the guns go on firing and the spectre of the hunger strikes looms ominously.
Against Philip Stewart’s Bowie-Dylan-Van Morrison punctuated soundscape, Willy Russell’s familiar Liverpudlian context is shifted across the Irish Sea and, in the process, a piece emerges that is the same but different, equally thought-provoking and multi-layered but carrying not only a different accent but the narrative overtones of a society drowning in sectarian conflict.
There is a calm ferocity about Emma Jordan’s directing style, which is adept at revealing the darkness behind the comedy. The door into Stuart Marshall’s wittily designed book-lined study is used with increasing speed to effect the transition between the characters and their converging lives. Kerri Quinn’s Rita morphs from loud-mouthed innocence into studious intensity, stranded between the community she rejects and the one to which access is restricted to a privileged few. Gradually, mannered facial and physical posturing gives way to a focused performance, instinctively in sync with Michael James Ford’s nicely understated, rumpled Frank.
One senses no sexual frisson between them, rather a dramatically satisfying relationship in which two damaged people offer each other a helping hand.
Until March 5