At the height of its boat building output, the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast had 35,000 people working for it. With the UK’s rapid deindustrialisation over the last 30 years, it’s almost impossible to imagine a company employing anywhere near those numbers existing today.
Harland & Wolff’s sprawling, pulsing business is what writer and actor Dan Gordon takes as the subject for his formidable new play, which arrives in London after a long tour. It’s a true tale of sorts – Gordon’s father Davy started his working life at the factory aged 16 just after the war, and ended it in 1997, when the SS Canberra was scrapped.
The play demonstrates how the factory shaped the Belfast landscape and the people who lived there. For more than a hundred years it churned out behemoth after behemoth – including the ill-fated SS Titanic – and provided a living to hundreds of families in the area.
Gordon and co-performer Michael Condron weave and hang from the set – boat-building scaffolding – as they act out the many colourful characters Davy meets. There’s ‘retarded’ Clifford, the fraudulent Sheriff and Davy’s best friend, Geordie Kilpatrick, who has been crippled by polio and is a passionate reader.
The performances are full of physical comedy and the duo move seamlessly from one character to the next. The enactment of his first day, where the nervous Davy inadvertently gets into a fight, feels as though there are eight bodies on stage, rather than two.
The show is steeped in a nostalgia for the days of industry, but it still serves some sharp wake-up calls when it comes to the conditions the men had to work under. When there’s a terrible accident at the factory, Gordon reminds us how cavalier employers could be with the lives of their workers and the play becomes as much about loss as it is about growing up.
By Daisy Bowie-Sell