It was an emotional night for Joe Brennan. There he was in the Grand Opera House reliving the days when he was around 17 and did a few shifts in his father’s pub, not just any old pub, a special little pop up shebeen hidden away from authority.
The year is 1970, the place a building ready for demolition on the corner of Balaclava Street and Raglan Street in West Belfast. From the outside The Sweety Bottle is just what it says, a quaint little sweet shop. But behind the jars filled with cherry lips and jub jubs, there’s a secret, a drinking den where Johnny Brennan has a clientele of jubious characters. The family sideboard does for a bar, some stools, a few cinema seats and a one arm bandit. And, with a load of drink from dear knows where, he’s in business.
Now Johnny Brennan’s son Joe and his grandson, writer Gerard Brennan, have recaptured those days in their play The Sweety Bottle.
Joe recalls, “The locals come to escape the troubles for a few hours, here they could dish the dirt, get rid of their demons and drink their worries away. The craic was great.”
And so is the play, just one rapid fire laugh after another. Certainly Brassneck Theatre Company has gathered a sweet cast, Marty Maguire is the long suffering JB generous to a fault until he realises he’s being taken advantage of but, even then, he still pours the drink ‘on the house’. His wife Eileen (Katie Tumelty) gets mad with him and spirits away some of his takings but, it transpires, for a good reason, and the actors each have a splendid time with their characters, Lalor Roddy, Ciaran Nolan, John Gerard Jordan and Gordon Fulton.
This play has been produced a few times in West Belfast and is the first play to transfer from the Baby Grand in the Opera House to the main stage. That stage is made smaller by black drapes so the little shebeen is the main focus. We wait for the action. Raunchy reels and jigs get us in the mood and as the Raggle Taggle Gipsies fade, so do the lights. Publican JB is opening up, tidying the bar, bringing in the bottles of booze and singing. Along to the record on the Dancette he sings Please Release Me. Manolito (Lalor Roddy) a lovable down and out who fancies himself as a fluent Spanish speaker, arrives and the craic begins. John (Ciaran Nolan) a Jack the Lad bounces in: “Did you hear the news, two black taxi drivers shot this morning.” “Where?” “South Africa!” Then a report that a mate had been kneecapped. “Where?” asks Manolito. “Where do you think, the eyebrows”.
This is Belfast humour and the audience love the repartee and they love Sam (Gerard Jordan) the showman in a pale blue suit and they applaud JB’s wife Eileen (Katie Tumelty) who tries to keep their family of 11 children together through The Troubles and at a time when money is short.
This is a cracking play, dips a little just after the interval but soon picks up. It’s very funny but you can also sense the tension behind the joviality, these are tough and frightening times, Grinder McVeigh is threatening to blow up the Sweety Bottle because he’d been barred but Father Peyton (Gordon Fulton) sorts him out just as he had Buck Alex and his lion; a man of the cloth, although perhaps not, who likes a small Larne Harbour now and again.
“What’s that?” asks JB who thought he knew every drink on the shelves. “A wee port,” says the reverend.
Part of Feile 25 this is a play for everyone but be warned, a lot of the ‘f’ word although in this case it fits.
Well done to Brassneck Theatre Company for bring this to the Opera House.
Review by Anne Hailes
Grand Opera House Belfast
Until Saturday 10th August 2013