Lloyd Evans 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?

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.

Barry’s beautifully modulated prose has the stillness, delicacy and purity of a Vermeer

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.

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