By Karen Isaacs
The Irish Rep made available through streaming the terrific one-woman show Belfast Blues, written and performed by Geraldine Hughes.
It is autobiographical, focusing on Hughes’ childhood in Belfast during the time of “the troubles.” Her family was Catholic and lived with the random bullets and police and military raids from that period in the ‘60s,’70s and ‘80s.
If one-person shows often are lacking, Belfast Blues shows you how it should be done. Hughes introduces us to many characters and creates them with voice and mannerisms so you can instantly identify them and understand them.
In addition to playing herself as child and adolescent, she brings in her mother and father, as well as neighbor Margaret and a shop owner Eddie. Plus she adds in some minor characters: a young boy, a woman from the welfare office, a nun and others.
This was filmed in front of live audience at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. In fact, when Hughes mentions at the beginning of the play, her mother’s name, someone in the audience called out “I know, I worked with her.”
In the opening scene, Hughes sketches the background of her mother and father’s meeting, marriage and quickly four children, while living in a one bedroom cottage. Before Hughes is born (she was the fifth of six children), “The troubles” began with the deployment of British army troops to Belfast.
She skillfully mixes in the routine days of childhood like first communion and events that would be horrifying to anyone. Her mother is forced to carry a box with a bomb in it past soldiers, a man was killed on their doorstep, a young boy in the flat above them (they had moved to a larger apartment in what we could call a slum) is killed by a stray bullet and more.
It wasn’t just the trash in the halls and the destroyed doors, it was the terrors. When the hunger striker Bobby Sands (who was also an elected member of the British Parliament) dies, she vividly tells us about a small boy, perhaps just 3 or 4, running after British soldiers and throwing rocks until one turns around and raises his weapon at the boy.
The ultimate irony is that the family moves to a house next to the “peace line” which separated Irish and Protestant neighborhoods. Ironic because both sides hurled bottles, rocks and bombs across it.
Hughes got out. She was selected by American producer Charles Hald to go to Los Angeles and appear in the television movie Children in the Crossfire, which was about exactly what she was experiencing. Afterwards she corresponded with Charlie as she called him.
The play ends after her father’s death when she tells her mother that she has to get out. With the help of Hald and others involved in the film, she went to the UCLA and became a fine actress.
What makes Belfast Blues so compelling is not only the story; it is Hughes’ ability to inhabit each of these characters so fully that you see them. You end the play feeling as though there were multiple performers on stage. She also so convincingly played a young girl and adolescent with accuracy.
If you get the chance to see this film, make sure you do. It is so worthwhile. Check out the Irish Rep.