The legacies of the Donegal boatbuilders find a new port

‘Foyle Punt’ review: Allow The Local Group to introduce you to a boat, the Foyle Punt, everything it stands for and what it may become

Philip McDonald in Foyle Punt: “They say bigger’s better... Stick with what you know.” Photograph: Donal Glackin

Philip McDonald in Foyle Punt: “They say bigger’s better... Stick with what you know.” Photograph: Donal Glackin

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Foyle Punt
★★★★

Rosses Point, Sligo

One of the refrains we find ourselves singing during Foyle Punt, a charming promenade performance inspired by the end of a proud legacy, has the rising and dipping melody of a lament, rolling out like the waves. “There’s a strange boat in the harbour,” keens the performer Little John Nee. “There’s a strange boat I never saw before.” Allow the debut production from The Local Group to make the introduction, then; familiarising us first with the boat, then everything it stands for, and finally what it may become.

Inspired by the story of the McDonald family, sixth-generation Donegal boatbuilders whose ancestors arrived from Scotland in 1750, the performance begins with the titular Foyle Punt rowed ashore. This is a handsome wooden craft, built specifically for the show, which evolved from humble origins as a “workhorse” fishing boat to become a sailing-class vessel.

Still, even as its maker Philip McDonald explains its origins, he probably never anticipated its role in director Caitríona McLaughlin’s production as a kind of mobile stage, one that delivers us a singer with a twanging cigar-box banjo, and whose purpose continues to drift subtly throughout the show.

That chimes with McDonald’s story, addressing us in a workshop where a vast array of tools are indicated on a work bench in artful silhouettes of sawdust, in Lian Bell’s evocative design, before a young woman’s sequinned handbag sends them scattering. It’s a pointed gesture. McDonald’s daughters, we hear, have chosen their own professions – one is a teacher, the other a chef – and as Jennie Moran glides into the scene, repurposing the hardy tools of boat building to prepare a dish of fresh-fried potato chips, served on the flat of a boat oar, the show hints at friction and breaks between generations.

“Abandon yourselves to the immersive experience… of being in a boat,” Nee archly instructs us later, where the sensation is buoyed up with the wheeze of a pump organ and the gorgeous, swaying song of Farah El Neihum, a young Libyan-Irish  musician.

Here, though, the experience becomes a little unmoored, mingling Nee’s goofy shanty about divided lobsters with Neihum’s truly sublime songs, delivered partly in Arabic, about family and dispossession. “I was born on another coast,” she sings. “Now I wait in limbo, in a room the size of a fishing boat.”

You get the idea: refugees have been making uncertain journeys for centuries, many on vessels significantly less sturdy than these. But when McDonald adds a salty moral to one story of fishermen unable to deal with an outsized catch (“They say bigger’s better... Stick with what you know.”), you may wonder too how much political weight a short performance can comfortably take on board.

McLaughlin otherwise prefers a light touch and an alertness to the art of sensation. The vista from the tip of Rosses Point, for instance, where the touring show debuted, supplies a majestic canvas, and the entire experience provides a feast of sounds – from the resonant chimes that guide the boat to the shore to the tintinnabulation of nearby sailboat masts.

The audience, moreover, divided into two parties, is reunited for a sumptuous banquet served on the Punt, sharing food together on a balmy summer evening. It’s a subtle gesture, and a wholly theatrical one, to turn one thing into another, and an assurance to the McDonalds that all legacies survive, however strange the boats that approach. The energies of this tradition will not be destroyed; just transformed into another.

Continues at Moville Pier, Donegal Jul 16; Derry Boat Club, Derry, Jul 18; Rathmullan Pier, Donegal, Jul 19-20; Bunbeg Pier, Donegal Jul 21-22

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