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  • Chris ORourke

Dublin Theatre Festival 2017: On Blueberry Hill

David Ganly and Niall Buggy in On Blueberry Hill. Photo by Patrick Redmond


What We Do For Love

Two fatherless sons, devoted to the respective mothers who raised them, find themselves sharing a cell for life for crimes both admit to committing. On the surface, all similarities and shared connections should end there, for under any other circumstances these men would most likely never have occasion to meet. Yet, though from different worlds, both men are sworn enemies. The younger, P.J., a former seminarian, still reads his bible, his descriptive conversations showing all the hallmarks of an educated man. The older, Christy, son of a famous tinker and fighter, knows a little about the harder side of life; about knife fights, or working long hours on the building sites. In Sebastian Barry's latest play, “On Blueberry Hill,” surfaces can be deceiving and people may discover they share a lot more in common than they realised, or even like. Yet what do you do when you can’t escape from the ties that bind you to the one you hate?

If “On Blueberry Hill” ultimately proves to be a sublime piece of writing, overflowing with raw power and a depth of humanity few can rival, initially omens are not so good. With opening sequences feeling like being regaled about the good aul days by two old codgers, history soon gives way to nostalgia and sentimentality. Reminiscing about Savage Smyth lemonade and the West-ter-ins, the joys of old 78's or the dread of wannabe hard chaws from Dun Laoghaire, results in an excess of sugary, nostalgic sentimentality being served up in huge, gooey dollops. Far surpassing a sense of two men remembering their lives outside prison. It might help create a context and sweeten the pill, but it makes it a context, and a pill, that’s initially much harder to swallow.

Niall Buggy in On Blueberry Hill. Photo by Patrick Redmond

While such sentimental reminiscences undoubtedly appeal to an audience of a certain age, they risk distancing everyone else who wasn’t there and isn’t particularly connected to the nostalgia. Thankfully things eventually settle, and once they do "On Blueberry Hill" suddenly becomes interesting. And from interesting, becomes intriguing. And from intriguing, becomes absolutely riveting. And from absolutely riveting, becomes utterly unforgettable. And that is all we shall say on that. For whatever its problematic opening, once it properly gets underway, the journey “On Blueberry Hill” takes you on brings you to the heights, and depths, of our humanity, and is best experienced the less you know. But you should know this much going in: it is likely to be a journey you will never forget.

Through alternating monologues, “On Blueberry Hill” tells an incredible story of such heart and heartache it should be made compulsory viewing. If language feels a little novelistic in places, in others it is utterly sublime. Evoking something of the spirit of Kiss of the Spider Woman, “On Blueberry Hill” places two naturally antagonistic men in a confined space, a situation that places significant demands on director Jim Culleton. Yet Culleton does an outstanding job taking what is essentially a visually limited, and unchanging, situation and making it utterly captivating. Due in no small measure to his eliciting two of the years most memorable performances. David Ganly as the troubled seminarian, still spiritual at his core, is beautifully nuanced, mesmerisingly shifting between emotional extremes. As is Niall Buggy as the older Christy. If it’s a little hard at first to see the ever-likeable Buggy as menacing, his impromptu outbursts of violent rage, along with the depths his character is forced to explore, soon put paid to any doubts. In both of their performances Ganly and Buggy negotiate, by way of staggering attention to detail, from nervous ticks to subtle gestures, a journey of such emotional, psychological, and moral complexity, it might well leave you stunned for days.

David Ganly in On Blueberry Hill.Photo by Patrick Redmond

The title, “On Blueberry Hill,” derived from the song Blueberry Hill, most famously recorded by Fats Domino in 1956, captures the restrained, life affirming exuberance at the heart of Barry’s astonishingly powerful play. Yet it also conveys a sense of tapping heavily into a sentimental vein of nostalgia, letting an older audience feel like they’re getting all the in-jokes, while the rest feel less connected. Yet once “On Blueberry Hill” gets into its central tale, and its two characters emerge from the mists of time, “On Blueberry Hill” leaves you totally in awe. A staggering tale of two unforgettable characters, told by way of two astonishing performances, and with some first class direction, “On Blueberry Hill” might well make you believe again. Don't ask in what: just go and see it.

“On Blueberry Hill” by Sebastian Barry, directed by Jim Culleton, and presented by Fishamble: The New Play Company, runs at The Pavilion Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2017 until October 8th

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