Editors' pick

Basra Boy


Editorial Review

Theater review: Keegan Theatre's world premiere of 'Basra Boy'

By Celia Wren
Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Brawling, cocaine-snorting, sabotaging a marching band's percussion section: Speedy, the 18-year-old protagonist of "Basra Boy," gets up to a heck of a lot of mischief in contemporary East Belfast.

But don't expect to find a grim portrait of urban delinquency in Irish playwright Rosemary Jenkinson's one-actor show - making its world premiere courtesy of the Keegan Theatre (which staged Jenkinson's "Stella Morgan" last season). In a succinct 70 minutes that pulse with slangy lyricism, "Basra Boy" paints a vibrant portrait of an exuberant teenager and his quirky, down-at-heels community. As brought to life by director Abigail Isaac and the appealing performer Josh Sticklin, who portrays multiple characters, it's a piece that starts as a funny, antic romp and ends as a touching tribute to friendship and to the process of growing up.

Geopolitics enters the mix, too, when Stig - Speedy's best friend and a fellow musician in the East Sons of Ulster marching band - resolves to join the army. Both baffled and fascinated by the decision, Speedy mockingly dubs his pal "Basra Boy," after the Iraqi locale. Nevertheless, ties of loyalty and comradeship continue to bind the two young men, even after Stig's deployment, not to Iraq but to Afghanistan.

Sporting jeans, sneakers and a red T-shirt, hair gelled to an adorable spikiness, Sticklin brings an intriguing touch of choirboy sweetness to the irreverent, cheerfully dissolute Speedy. ("You gotta use your body," the character says in justification of his hard living as he turns 19. "It's like, what's the point of havin' a car and keepin' it in the garage?") It's a flavorful and physically vigorous performance: Here Speedy is, striding along with his band while his fingers tap his flute. There he is, gleefully wielding a slingshot as he relives a childhood prank. Now he's standing on one leg, arms flailing in slow motion as he recalls his collision, in a crowd, with an intoxicated girl ("Fallin' all over me like a Tasered heifer").

Sticklin also plunges zestfully into the play's other characters, including a blustering band leader, a bragging army veteran and a social worker whose fondness for trendy theories ("It's what's termed as a Jesus-Judas complex") blinds her to Speedy's real nature. There's lots of room for all these figures, and for Sticklin's movements, on designer George Lucas's simple set: a bar counter flanked by tall wooden stools, set against a backdrop of graffiti-scrawled black fabric that aptly evokes the seediness of the story's East Belfast.

While accentuating Speedy's intermittent loneliness, Dan Martin's focused lighting design helps distinguish the locales and time frames that float into view in "Basra Boy" (running in repertory with Keegan's production of "The Weir," by Conor McPherson). And Isaac's sound design conjures up war-torn Afghanistan, as well as the YouTube military and jihad videos that stoke Stig's and Speedy's wanderlust. But the production never gets in the way of Jenkinson's writing, with its propulsive rhythms, piquant wisecracks, canny allusions and stream-of-consciousness riffs exulting in poetic details and phrasings. Were the East Sons of Ulster's tunes as resonant and well pitched, the band would do its home town proud.

Basra Boy by Rosemary Jenkinson. Directed by Abigail Isaac; costume design, Kelly Peacock; assistant costume design, Audrey Edwards; properties design, Carol Baker. 70 minutes.

'Basra Boy' by Keegan Theatre

By Lavanya Ramanathan
Thursday, February 17, 2011

In "Basra Boy," Keegan Theatre's new production, a teen aches to join the army, if only to escape the boredom and sheer claustrophobia of small-town life.

If the story of a young man bound for the Mideast has a familiar ring, perhaps that's because it could have easily been set in Topeka or Tennessee or Texas.

But "Basra Boy" takes place in Belfast, home of playwright Rosemary Jenkinson, who has witnessed the current wars affect her own insular community.

Jenkinson, who is rapidly becoming known stateside for works such as "Johnny Meister and the Stitch" (staged by Solas Nua last summer), began to write her rapid-fire show when a homecoming parade brought soldiers back from Afghanistan and Iraq into the streets of Belfast in 2008.

"There were thousands upon thousands of soldiers coming back," Jenkinson, 43, says by phone from Belfast. "It was just in the public conscience. I was at the parade and just talking to the teenagers, who were all talking about whether they should join.

"It's these small, claustrophobic communities," she adds. "This was their chance to get out and see the world." And, she notes with a trace of incredulousness, "they were talking about money."

The themes are something director Abigail Isaac thinks American audiences will relate to. "There are certainly . . . kids who have troubled family lives who don't see a lot of potential in their own lives. It's exciting that it's one step away from an American teenager," Isaac says. "It lets us see a little bit better. People are going to end up thinking about the kids in their own neighborhood."

"Basra Boy" follows rowdy best friends Stig and Speedy, whose friendship - based almost solely on picking fights and using drugs together - is fractured when Speedy decides to join the army. "One sees an escape out of this world through the army; the other one thinks that's completely insane to risk their lives," Jenkinson explains.

But in an act of stagecraft, actor Josh Sticklin will play both friends, as well as every other role. The internal monologue is on display here, too: The characters speak their inner thoughts for the audience to hear, a tricky feat for a theater company - and "Basra Boy's" star.

"The format of the play is so unique," says Isaac. "It's an exciting kind of storytelling, which is important for directors and actors. There is one character playing many parts, but he speaks directly to the audience."

"I think that's why I get my work staged a lot," Jenkinson explains. "Theaters really like to do things that are really physical. What I write has movement."

This is Keegan's second production of Jenkinson's work, after staging "Stella Morgan" last year. That show, like "Johnny Meister," won the playwright favorable comparisons with other much-produced young Irish writers such as Conor McPherson and Enda Walsh.

Language and dark spirit are perhaps what links her work to such writers, Jenkinson says. "We all have a slightly twisted worldview," she says with a laugh. "That's what's wrong with us - lack of fear to go into the darkest places.

"What Irish writing often has is a beautiful link between humor and darkness, particularly in Belfast. We're known for dark humor. We've got a unique perspective."

Jenkinson was initially a short-story writer, which may explain the poetic tendencies in her language, particularly in "Basra Boy." But when a friend began to write plays, and win some success, she decided to try it. "I was propelled purely by competitiveness," she says.

A trainee program led to commissions, but it was the production of "Johnny Meister" at the Edinburgh Fringe that had a huge impact on her career.

"If you put things on in Belfast, very few people from the U.K. or even Dublin come to see it. You've really got to get your work out, out of the country," she says.

Yet Jenkinson's work is so imbued with Belfast's spirit that she could never leave it for good. "I love Belfast. I just adore it. I adore the language and the way people speak," she says. "The place - it's still so divided, so ghettoized. It has such a sense of history. I can't tear myself away.

"The interesting thing is that I can look at the outside world through Belfast, as in 'Basra Boy.' I can use that as a conduit to get into real lives and look out."

And then there is Belfast's own violent history.

"Because of our politically tormented history, we can also look at wars differently," Jenkinson says. "Afghanistan doesn't feel so different. There were soldiers on the streets here not so long ago.

"What Afghanistan has was our normality."