Lloyd Evans

A mesmerising piece of theatre: On Blueberry Hill reviewed

Plus: how did the air-headed extravagance that is Shoe Lady ever get produced?

A mesmerising piece of theatre: On Blueberry Hill reviewed
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On Blueberry Hill

Trafalgar One

Shoe Lady

Royal Court

On Blueberry Hill sounds like a musical but it’s a sombre prison drama set in Ireland. Two bunkbeds. Above, an older man, Christy. Below, his younger companion, PJ. They take turns to talk, and gradually they reveal how their lives are interwoven. These are men of unusual intelligence and articulacy, and both are so profoundly in love with life’s simplest joys that their incarceration seems barely credible. Each might be a professor of literature or philosophy.

During his boyhood, PJ tells us, he once worked as a golf caddy for a movie actor who shot a perfect round. It made him more happy than anything he had ever done. He tipped PJ ten shillings (50p), which was such a vast sum that his mother thought he’d stolen it. PJ started an affair with a novice priest whose speaking voice he loved. ‘He had an accent on him that could mash spuds.’ The romance was discovered. A botched murder-suicide followed. PJ survived and was found guilty of killing the priest.

Christy was an itinerant site worker who commuted between Ireland and England on stinking ferries crammed with boozy scaffolders. The internal decks were ankle-deep in regurgitated Guinness. In a hammock he once noticed a brickie whose undarned socks were growing into his foot soles. Christy was no stranger to hooch himself. ‘I drank a bottle of whiskey every day for ten years and it never took a feather off me.’ His talk includes tips on getting ahead on a building site: claim mastery of every skill going. He once found himself driving a bulldozer, without training. Later he was ordered on to a crane whose secrets he discovered ‘by trial and error’.

Barry’s beautifully modulated prose would grace a prizewinning novel but it never feels too contrived or artful for the theatre. The characters are rendered with absolute assurance. David Ganly’s PJ is a goofy, scruffy bear of a man. But it’s the skinny, streetwise Christy (a superb Niall Buggy) who knows all the fighting moves. The men come to blows because of a coincidence that links them to a second murder. But they overcome their animosity and find the basis of a lasting friendship. A few plot difficulties aside, this is a mesmerising piece of theatre. It has the stillness, delicacy and purity of a Vermeer. At its heart lies a well-worn truth: love will conquer all. But the telling of it is anything but commonplace.

The Royal Court’s Shoe Lady is about a lost shoe. Viv is an estate agent, married with a child, who traipses across London in search of new footwear. She visits a café, a park, a shop and a police station while wittering aimlessly about curtains, mirrors and orgasms. Her shapeless soliloquy seems designed to emphasise her intellectual vacuity. In this respect, the script is a success. When her unshod tootsies start to bleed she considers pilfering footwear from a client. Under a tree she finds a rough-sleeper, Elaine, who is black, young, plump, female and a native of London. This is rather odd. Few vagrants in the capital match that description. Most are skinny, white males over 30, and plenty come from the UK regions or from overseas. A playwright who wants to offer social realism should take the occasional peek outside, to see what’s happening.

Viv remembers that it’s her son’s birthday and she tricks him with a parcel containing nothing. She plays the prank twice. ‘Let me wrap it up. There. Try again. Nothing!’ The lad is six years old. He won’t forget that in a hurry.

But the writer, E.V. Crowe, must be approached with caution. She’s a surrealist who likes to con the audience and to throw her story into reverse without warning. After 45 minutes this duly happens and Viv explains the cause of her distress. The closing sequences feel like a frantic search for a climax. There’s a song-and-dance routine, a speech by a child who is also a plant, and the discovery of a replacement shoe. Then it’s over. This is obviously an attempt to update Beckett’s Happy Days by placing a deranged female in a chaotic waking dream. Alas, Happy Days is one of Beckett’s most impenetrable scripts. This is worse. As a drama, it expires at birth because it can’t give us a reason to care about Viv or her missing footwear.

How did this air-headed extravagance get produced? The show is essentially a monologue but the company includes five actors, a movement director and a puppetry consultant. No commercial theatre could afford to lavish such riches on this frivolity. Faber and Faber have even published the 80-page script for £9.99 as if it were a turning-point in literary history — like The Waste Land. It’s sad to see the mighty Royal Court run by killjoy incompetents. One day, artists will reclaim this house.