Theatre Review: Planet Belfast

A comedy about government corruption, agricultural apocalypse, and marital discord. Or ‘politics, potatoes and sex’

‘That was funnier than I expected,’ is usually faint praise. However, I was expecting Planet Belfast to be funny – its tagline is ‘politics, potatoes and sex’ for goodness sake – but it turned out to be incisively, laceratingly, blackly hysterical.

Written by playwright Rosemary Jenkinson, who returns to the brand of ‘ha ha ha…hold on, should I laugh at that?’ humour that served Basra Boy so well, Planet Belfast drops the audience into the unglamorous life of Northern Ireland’s only Green Party MLA. Alice lives her life by eco-friendly bulbs, assiduously composts in her over-fertile wormery and has started an apiary in her garden to combat the declining population of the honey bee. She’s the sort of earnest environmentalist that other environmentalists make jokes about.

Only thing is, if you made Alice the butt of your joke, she’d probably lamp you one. Played with acerbic, self-loathing awareness by Abigail McGibbon, Alice is a cynical, borderline abusive drunk with a foul mouth and no patience. Even when she’s in the right, in fact, especially when she’s in the right, Alice is a hard character to like. McGibbon brings such up-front honesty to the role – hanging up both Alice’s pettiness and her flinty morality on her face all to see – that it’s hard to hate her either.

The pinnacle of Alice’s 18-month career as an MLA is fast approaching: the vote on whether to allow GM crops into Northern Ireland. She’s passionately, convincingly against it, managing to convince both Sinn Fein and the Independent Unionists to back her vote. Unfortunately, her personal life isn’t going quite so well.

Her husband Martin, a one-book wonder historian, is feeling emasculated by her prominence and won’t stick to the blueberry and walnut diet she’s convinced will get her pregnant. His new job isn’t helping, with Conor Grimes’ professional victim of the Troubles Danny constantly disapproving of Martin’s failure to be a victim and reminding him that he only got the job because of Alice.

Actor Paul Kennedy taps into his inner weasel to play Martin, a self-abnegating people pleaser until someone turns their back and he can pull them apart. Unlike Alice, he’s a likable character that’s easy to dislike. ‘More of an embarrassment than Iris Robinson,’ Claire dismisses him at one point.

planetbelfastcast

Despite everything, though, Alice’s professional and personal life teeters along like a disaster that never quite happens. Until Friends Reunited throws in the glossy, red-lipped straw that broke the camel’s back.

Claire is professionally Teflon – sexually ambiguous, morally absent and always ready with a breathy giggle if anyone thinks anything is getting serious. She’s the snake in the garden of Eden, only with a GM potato instead of an apple. Tara Lynne O’Neill (The Fall, Fly Me To The Moon) coquettes her way through a part that could have easily gone ‘panto villain’ if not for the actress’ ability to charm out the subtleties of the role. After all, Claire might be sleazy and manipulative, but it’s not like she misrepresented herself.

‘I sold my conscience years ago,’ she says. It’s not her fault nobody takes her at her word, is it?

With Claire stirring the pot, Alice’s carefully eco-friendly world might just come down around her ears. It’s all a huge mess…

Everything ends up wrapped up tidily at the end though. It’s the only part of the play I wasn’t completely sold on, it was a little too easy. If Alice is Cassandra, then maybe the audience should have been left doubting her?

Planet Belfast could easily have been a parody. The elements are all there, stereotypes dialled up to 11, and it wouldn’t take it much to tip it over the edge. Instead, director Michael Duke strips the performances back to an almost discomfiting naturalism. Taking advantage of the stageless Upstairs at the MAC theatre, the play slopes into odd corners and angles. It almost blocked cinematically rather than for stage, and the dissonance is surprisingly effective.

The actors are also completely believable, watching Alice and Martin’s staggering, condensed arguments – so familiar that they short hand it with a few lines – was actually uncomfortably realistic. You laughed, but you felt a bit bad about it – like maybe you should get in there and do something instead (you shouldn’t though, actors don’t like that).

And somehow the high-tech, glittering thread and video projection set designed by Ciaran Bagnall and Conan McIvor works completely harmoniously with that. It manages to conjure up the near-future threat of a GM crop famine, while also suggesting mundane office curtains or the glass windows of an apartment. In one absolutely gorgeous scene, it actually gives the impression of being a smeary security camera feed.

Tinderbox have, as always, managed to out-do themselves. Planet Belfast is brilliant, witty and thought-provoking, combining Tinderbox’s ineffable stagecraft with Jenkinson’s lemon-sharp script and a set that should not be nearly as subtly effective as it is.

Planet Belfast is at the MAC until March 2