Make no mistake, this is a powerful night at the theatre, the Lyric Theatre to be precise. Jennifer Johnston’s novel How Many Miles to Babylon? has been adapted for the stage most recently by Alan Stanford and he has presented the cast with a weighty responsibility which they take up admirably.
Set in Co. Wicklow and Belgium, this is the story of two men from different sides of the Irish class system, the working boy from the village and the educated young man from the Big House. They form a genuine friendship which overcomes that divide, even when being forbidden to converse with ‘those sort of people’, our teenage Anglo Irish hero ignores this and the relationship grows, each learning from the other, both devoted to horses. Indeed, when the day comes the wealthy son of a weak father and an intolerant mother, Alec (Anthony Delaney) pledges to buy a stud farm and his partner and jockey will be Jerry (Ryan McParland) and together they will make a fortune.
However, the war to end all wars, the Great War of 100 years ago, shatters this dream and devastates both young men.
The set for this play is ingenious but technically challenging. The director Philip Wilson came on stage before curtain up on opening night and explained that the company were working with a true diva – the revolve in the centre of the stage! It had been misbehaving and might give trouble on the night, and indeed it did. A young lady was seen to give it a couple of pushes before it took off to presented us with the setting for each scene but the interruption didn’t distract for long, soon we were into the plot, the haughty mother and kindly father, her desire for her son to go to war and not be seen as a coward, his to drink away his fears of what might happen if he did.
So, under pressure, the boy joins the Royal Irish Rifles as an officer only to discover that Jerry is one of his soldiers, there only for the cash! Again barrier and discipline attempt to prevent the two continuing their friendship but it’s deep and lasting and overcomes rules and regulations to the very bitter end.
This is a thought provoking production, sensitively directed and Philip Wilson has drawn the best from the company. The mother (Catherine Cusack), the ineffectual father (Michael James Ford) and the army ”brass” Richard Teverson and Jeremy Lloyd, in fact the entire company are to be commended for their performances; they brought to life what it was like in the trenches of Flanders, the tensions and the humour, we hear the bombs, the screams of dying men, we can imagine the rats and the mud and body parts raining down with each explosion, foot rot and chilblains.
The two men and their story becomes our focus with Anthony Delaney portraying the sensitive young man somewhat confused with the unnatural rules of the army where high rank is forbidden to speak to low rank, similar to his mothers instructions years before. We really feel for him and his desire to do the right thing yet never to break a friendship which presents him with a heartbreaking decision. Ryan McParland just steals our hearts with his loyalty, his optimistic outlook on life and realistic outlook on death. What a pair, perfectly matched in their performances.
Jennifer Johnston was at the opening night and gave a very definite thumbs up and insisted on meeting the cast and crew after the show in order to thank each one of them personally.
A challenging play but one not to be missed.
More details at www.lyrictheatre.co.uk
Check all Anne Hailes Belfast Times reviews here.