Theater review: Keegan Theatre's world premiere of 'Basra Boy'
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.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Basra Boy by Rosemary Jenkinson. Directed by Abigail Isaac; costume design, Kelly Peacock; assistant costume design, Audrey Edwards; properties design, Carol Baker. 70 minutes. Through March 12 at the Church Street Theater, 1742 Church St. NW. Call 703-892-0202 or visit www.keegantheatre.com.