Drum Belly at the Abbey

Ronan Leahy (Willy ‘Wicklow’ Hill) in Drum Belly by Richard Dormer. Directed by Sean Holmes. Photography: Anthony Woods
Ronan Leahy (Willy ‘Wicklow’ Hill) in Drum Belly by Richard Dormer. Directed by Sean Holmes. Photography: Anthony Woods

The play on the Abbey stage at the moment is not an Irish classic, it’s not Shakespeare, it’s not even a contemporary play by a well-known writer. It is however, a tremendous piece of theatre. It is a new Irish play but it’s set in the past, in the dark and desperate world of New York gangsters. It’s 1969, there’s about to be a man on the moon and there’s a truce unfolding between the Irish and the Italians.

The play starts with a wonderful monologue from Harvey Marr (Liam Carney) as he talks about his day. This Irish-American crook knows how to spin a yarn and this tale includes booze, women and violence. The story is directed at the silent Walter Sorrow who is only half-listening to Harvey’s ramblings as he goes about his work. This work is bloody and unpleasant, but as Harvey says it’s work and has to be done. This scene sets us up the rest of the play nicely – it neatly encapsulates the world we’ve entered; a world of brutal men who kill casually, often while telling a joke. Harvey isn’t a particularly likeable character, but you still feel for him.

Over the next 90 minutes, we meet gangsters who swagger and strut, a boss man who collects trees from all over Ireland and a silent teenager over from the old country, escaping the troubles in Belfast. Despite the grim and gritty world it is evoking, this is a very stylish production. The set is starkly beautiful and as the action moves rapidly from place to place, the scene changes have no problem keeping up. There’s a wonderful energy to the production which comes from the snappy dialogue and the talented cast. Despite this energy, despite the new world that is opening up to them, these guys are still stuck in the past. There are many references to Ireland and to Irish heritage and culture. They are a backwards looking community and they’re going nowhere fast. Like the versatile set that is used for many different locations, the characters expend a whole lot of energy but aren’t getting anywhere.

The play has a cinematic quality to it that works well most of the time. However this can be jarring when things happen that aren’t as realistic as it would be on screen. This means the violence and blood-shed often feels fake. The more theatrical moments work better because the audience are happy to go with them. It’s also a very male play which might put some people off just as much as the violence. There seems to be no place for women in this world and they are seldom mentioned by our all male cast.

Despite this, Drum Belly is a very enjoyable show. The script is sharp and has some great lines. The cast are very strong and the whole show looks fantastic. If you want to see for yourself, the Abbey are doing a deal at the moment where you can get €10 “Test Drive” tickets, Monday – Wednesday, subject to availability. It will be €10 well spent!

Drum Belly runs until May 11 and tickets (including €10 Test Drive tickets) are available here.

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