‘On Blueberry Hill’ review

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars
On Blueberry Hill, Trafalgar Studios, 2020
Photograph: Patrick Redmond Niall Buggy and David Ganly

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Sebastian Barry’s beautifully-crafted drama about two men serving life sentences in an Irish prison

We never actually see the two men speak to each other – but they overlap, in time, in space, and in each other’s tragedies. Christy and PJ spend 20 years together sharing a prison cell in Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison. Each speaks to the audience, telling their story as if they’re taking our hands and leading us along the path that led to their incarceration. And not to give the slow-spooling plot away, but it is pretty clear from the start that their crimes will be as entwined as their punishments.

‘On Blueberry Hill’, named after the Fats Waller song which makes an affecting appearance, was written by novelist and playwright Sebastian Barry for Irish company Fishamble, and has already been seen around Ireland, as well as in Paris and New York. And there are times when you feel you’re witnessing the craft of a novelist, rather than the playwright.

There are many gorgeous turns of phrase, and Barry writes with beautiful insight about how emotions can become almost too huge to bear. Although he has his characters lament the inadequacy of words to describe our most intense human feelings – love, grief – they actually speak with the sort of lyrical eloquence and radiant romantic nostalgia that makes people in the audience give little satisfied sighs now and then. It’s luminous stuff: PJ, recalling a secret trip to an island with a gay lover, describes ‘armies of sunlight and shadows advancing and retreating everywhere’; Christy recalls his wife, as ‘so pretty she was walking in her own bleeding light.’

Still, having both men completely living in their separate memories also makes for a pretty static 100 minutes. Watching two characters never actually interact rarely feels terribly theatrical; ‘On Blueberry Hill’ could be a radio play, or a novella. The story moves, but it doesn’t always grab.

Lucky, then, that Jim Culleton’s carefully unfurling production has two cracking actors: David Ganly and Niall Buggy have stayed with the play since it opened, and find real depth in their characters’ storytelling, making improbable acts of generosity and forgiveness feel plausible. They nail the timing and timbre of their characters’ wit, too – both dry as the hundreds of sheets of paper that fall in curtains around the stage in Sabine Dargent’s semi-abstract set. Buggy is especially vivid as Christy, managing to be simultaneously irascible and twinkling. For someone on a life sentence, he’s full of life.

By: Holly Williams

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