With On Blueberry Hill, Sebastian Barry, a novelist first and foremost and a part-time playwright on the side, follows in the heady, word-spinning tradition of his fellow Irish dramatists Sean O’Casey and Brian Friel. Though those two luminaries are far more skilled when it comes to constructing a well-made play, all three are poets intoxicated by words and images that paint indelible pictures of time, place and character.
Fats Waller’s immortal song that gives Barry’s play its title isn’t the only music that earworms its way into your head. A veritable symphony of rhythmic, colourful language constantly saturates the imagination. For example, there’s talk about a slender young man “soft as a hot cross bun … shining with beauty, with an accent that would mash spuds.” A bar of chocolate has “melted in an agreeable way.” The perfection of marital bliss becomes “the dead centre of things – like the dart on a dartboard. The bull’s eye.” The contours of a coastline unfurl “like the bedclothes of God.”
The protagonists of Barry’s first new play to be staged in London for a decade (it was written in 2017 and performed by the Fishamble company in Dublin as well as by 59 E59th Street Theater in New York last year) are a priest called PJ (David Ganly) and Christy (Niall Buggy), a loquacious construction worker, who occupy the lower and top bunks of the prison cell they share. Over the course of the 100 minutes we spend in their company, not once do they converse with each other. In a series of lengthy alternating monologues, they address the audience directly but always separately, then recede into the darkness of their surroundings.
They begin with a selection of potent childhood and family memories: idyllic visits to the seaside, “the wide blaze of a summer day,” Christie’s recollections of becoming a construction worker and learning his trade on the job – all recalled through the rose-tinted prism of youth.
The enchantment, however, which also includes PJ’s infatuation with an androgynous youth, suddenly sours when he tells of “a strange little instinct … a piece of wretched devilment” that was to blight the remainder of his life and for which he can find no logical explanation.
It is at this crucial point in the play that Barry’s plot – which would be churlish of me to give away – kicks in and seriously threatens to damage what has hitherto been a rather cosy and engaging narrative. How the two men find themselves sharing the same cell for 20 years and how, as we come to learn, their violent actions interlock, stretches credulity way beyond breaking point.
It says much for the meticulously calibrated performances of Ganly and (especially) Buggy that the top-heavy contrivances of the plot somehow manage to keep this entertaining two-hander afloat. Rarely has it been so easy to turn a blind eye to a play’s faults and so willingly give it the benefit of the doubt. Nor must one underestimate the invaluable contribution made by Jim Culleton’s focused and concentrated direction, or by Mark Galione’s moodily noirish lighting. Call it a great job of camouflage, if you like. But they somehow make the far-fetched narrative work.
That’s what I call real theatrical magic.