nytheatre.com review by Debbie Hoodiman
January 17, 2005
In Belfast Blues, Geraldine Hughes tells the story of growing up as part of the Catholic minority in war-torn Belfast, Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s, a place where there were British soldiers occupying the city, children throwing rocks and bricks at them, riots breaking out, tanks on the streets, and terrorists setting off bombs. In this moving and powerful one-woman play, Hughes brings the consequences of violent conflict over religion, national identity, land, and power out of the abstract. She invites the audience to understand the personal, very human consequences of this type of violence, which, unfortunately, we currently hear about on the news from other parts of the world almost daily.
Hughes’s show begins with a short description of her parents before she was born. They were poor, she says, but so was everyone. They had four children, lived a happy life in Northern Ireland, and then the “Troubles” began.
During the play, loud sounds of bombs and gunfire interrupt scenes of everyday life. The first time Geraldine’s mother hears the gunfire, she is shocked. She’s never heard it before. By the end, several years later, she yells at the rioters to just shut up so she can finish her stew.
Throughout the play, Hughes portrays her family’s and her own terror, and also captures the liveliness and love that surrounded her when she was a child. In one funny bit, she takes her first Holy Communion and struggles not to chew the body of Christ, even though she has been warned not to. She also dances around and plays and enjoys ice cream and fish & chips. With her big, wide eyes, she is charming and likable.
In one poignant scene, she runs a small shop out of her family’s living room, selling candy bars and cigarettes to people who come to her window while her mother holds off an inspector. Right after this, a bomb goes off nearby.
It seems Hughes was able to escape Northern Ireland for America only because of luck and charm. When she was a child, she was chosen out of thousands of other girls to appear in an American television film. This experience gave her connections that later helped her go to college in California.
Hughes portrays family members and neighbors as characters in her play, and she does so with a lot of love and fondness. This tells the audience how the people in Belfast tried to live “normal” or at least livable lives. Some of the most vivid of there are: Eddie, who blinks a lot and who assures Geraldine’s mother, when she is pregnant and wonders whether she should bring a child into this violent world, that the child will be loved; Margaret, who always has a cigarette in her hand and an honest word; and Sheila, Geraldine’s mother, who always sings and who wanted to name Geraldine Debbie after Debbie Reynolds. Hughes plays her father Eamon with great specificity as well; I really felt I could see an older Irishman’s face in her own. Here was a man who always bet on horses that came in second and liked to go to the pub.
The set, designed by Jonathan Christman, consists of a brick wall with barbed wire on top, a small brick bench, steps, and some rubbish in the corners. It looks like it could be a bombed urban dwelling with lots of concrete. The brick wall is used as a screen, where images from Hughes’s childhood are projected—tanks, a hospital, a cathedral, a girl in a Communion dress, clips from the movie she appeared in.
The music and sound, designed by Jonathan Snipes, are used well. At the top of the play, we hear children singing and then the sound of bombs. Music punctuates and comments on the scenes.
It seems that the contrast between the children’s singing and the bombs signifies what Geraldine Hughes is saying about the innocence of her childhood and the terrible violence that surrounded her. It is a credit to Hughes that she portrays both the joy and the terror, really putting a human face on the consequences of war.