Brawling, cocaine-snorting, sabotaging a marching band’s percussion section: Speedy, the 18-year-old protagonist of “Basra Boy,” gets up to a heck of a lot of mischief in contemporary East Belfast.
But don’t expect to find a grim portrait of urban delinquency in Irish playwright Rosemary Jenkinson’s one-actor show …
In a succinct 70 minutes that pulse with slangy lyricism, “Basra Boy” paints a vibrant portrait of an exuberant teenager and his quirky, down-at-heels community.
As brought to life by director Abigail Isaac and the appealing performer Josh Sticklin, who portrays multiple characters, it’s a piece that starts as a funny, antic romp and ends as a touching tribute to friendship and to the process of growing up.
Geopolitics enters the mix, too, when Stig – Speedy’s best friend and a fellow musician in the East Sons of Ulster marching band – resolves to join the army. Both baffled and fascinated by the decision, Speedy mockingly dubs his pal “Basra Boy,” after the Iraqi locale. Nevertheless, ties of loyalty and comradeship continue to bind the two young men, even after Stig’s deployment, not to Iraq but to Afghanistan.
Sticklin brings an intriguing touch of choirboy sweetness to the irreverent, cheerfully dissolute Speedy. It’s a flavorful and physically vigorous performance…
Sticklin also plunges zestfully into the play’s other characters, including a blustering band leader, a bragging army veteran and a social worker whose fondness for trendy theories (“It’s what’s termed as a Jesus-Judas complex”) blinds her to Speedy’s real nature. There’s lots of room for all these figures, and for Sticklin’s movements, on designer George Lucas’s simple set: a bar counter flanked by tall wooden stools, set against a backdrop of graffiti-scrawled black fabric that aptly evokes the seediness of the story’s East Belfast.
While accentuating Speedy’s intermittent loneliness, Dan Martin’s focused lighting design helps distinguish the locales and time frames that float into view in “Basra Boy”. And Isaac’s sound design conjures up war-torn Afghanistan, as well as the YouTube military and jihad videos that stoke Stig’s and Speedy’s wanderlust.
But the production never gets in the way of Jenkinson’s writing, with its propulsive rhythms, piquant wisecracks, canny allusions and stream-of-consciousness riffs exulting in poetic details and phrasings.
Were the East Sons of Ulster’s tunes as resonant and well pitched, the band would do its home town proud.