Writers: Ed Harris and Jordan Tannahill
Directors: Andrea Grimason and Alice Taylor
Drawing this year’s National Theatre Connections festival to a close, Saturday’s productions pose big questions at opposite ends of the personal scale: from an internal struggle with one’s grief to how to save the world from climate catastrophe.
Ed Harris’s Strangers Like Me centres around Elbow, a teenager in high school whose best friend, Hamster, has died suddenly. After smashing a mirror in their grief, Elbow’s psyche splits into several pieces, who bicker and squabble over the best way to process what is happening.
Belfast’s Crescent Arts Youth Theatre take on the mighty task of tackling teenage grief head-on. Led by a spritely pair of bickering narrators (Martyna Mis and Tait Brennan) humour is never far away: from Elbow’s dismissive mum and dad, more keen on sharing funny videos with each other on WhatsApp than parenting, to some hilariously realistic arguing on the school bus. Elbow’s older brother Donut (Jude Crawford) displays a worrying trend towards toxic masculinity that one of Elbow’s facets (Jack Dalzell) begins to find appealing, some subtle costume changes reinforcing the change in ways that complement the spoken dialogue.
It is the moments between Jessica McGrath’s Elbow and their divided personality that stand out, though. Losing a best friend is always tough, but never more so when you had just fallen out with them and don’t feel you deserve the title. Harris gives each aspect of Elbow’s split identity a clear sense of character and drive, allowing the internal conflict to play out with warmth.
It is a technique that allows many aspects of the grieving process to be touched upon lightly, but deeply. There is a lesson that there is no right or wrong way to feel after such a sudden loss, that worrying about whether one is grieving the “correct” way is as painful as it is self-destructive, and that similarly, one should allow others to grieve in their own way without judgement.
For all its deep subject matter, though, Harris and the Crescent’s cast keep the tone light and sparkly enough for those messages to be heard without being shouted at.
The final play of the evening, and of the festival, is an altogether louder affair. Jordan Tannahill’s Is My Microphone On? is a blistering piece of agitprop, performed by Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys.
With time to prevent catastrophic and irreversible climate change rapidly decreasing, the young children of the world are understandably angry. They are the ones who will have to live in the world being destroyed by politicians and corporations over whom they have no control, no influence. But that is not going to stop them from fighting.
The 20-plus cast often talks directly to us, the adults in the audience, whether Baby Boomers, GenX-ers or millennials. We are admonished for our failures, whether it’s not taking enough personal responsibility for our climate footprint or consistently voting in right-wing regimes in countries all over the world with a greater interest in oppressing the opponents than in saving the planet.
Groups occasionally break out to perform small sketches, beat poetry, and even music thanks to an onstage drummer and electric guitarist. There are discussions, too: is being swearily dismissive of the older generation productive, or does it make young people’s pleas easier to dismiss?
The stronger parts of Tannahill’s sprawling work are those which emphasise the scale of the challenges facing the planet: what good is recycling a few extra materials, or cutting down on Amazon purchases, if Jeff Bezos is burning billions of litres of rocket fuel just for a ten-minute joyride into space?
There is joy too in there. A section which talks about how activists from groups like Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil are supergluing themselves to roads, buildings and more is cause for some fun mime work. And throughout, Tannahill’s turns of phrase are always able to raise a smile.
Most effective, though, is the choice to have the cast gradually grow, as young actors strategically seated in the audience rise up and join the protest. That is perhaps the most important message of all: the movement is growing, and the collective voices are getting louder. Sooner or later, we grown-ups are not going to be able to ignore them any more.
Reviewed on 24 June 2023
Applications are also open to take part inConnections 2024now