BWW Reviews: SPOKESONG, Finborough Theatre, May 26 2014
Frank's got this ridiculous idea. He thinks - get this - that 500 bicycles should be made available (for free!) so people can get around the city, the air can be cleaner and everyone can just get along a whole lot better, decanted from their metal missile cars. But this production is no celebration of 21st century Boris Bikes; it's plea for decency in early 70s Belfast.
Frank (an earnest Stephen Cavanagh) doesn't just want to save his city, he also wants to get the girl too - in his case, sceptical schoolteacher Daisy (Elly Condron in full flame-haired Colleen mode). And so he might, were it not for his dodgy brother Julian (a sly, seductive Paul Mallon) back home to photograph The Troubles, but possibly to add to them too. All the while, visions of his grandparents, decent bloke Francis (Jack Power) and feminist force of nature Kitty (Melanie McHugh) swim in front of Frank's eyes, as past determines present and the old enmities flare - as they are wont to do in Ulster.
There's much to admire about Stewart Parker's Spokesong (at the Finborough Theatre until 10 June) not least the songs, sung magnificently by Ben Callon, who also impresses in a range of minor roles. Written at the height of the bombings, it's a subtle reminder that perfectly normal people were trying to do perfectly normal things, whilst being visited almost daily by outrageous carnage. And if it wasn't the paramilitaries out to wreak mayhem, planners, devoted to the car and its inner city flyovers, chipped in to lay waste to little bike shops, leaving the bus stations to the bombers.
There's a bit of exposition / preaching, a bit of Oirish sentimentality and quite a lot of humour circling around the simple bike-strewn set, but all the characters are believable, even if they live in what must seem to anyone under 30 to be literally unbelievable times. If the second act lacks the pace and punch of the first, the dilemmas it presents and resolves were real back then and, lest we forget the lesson of history, may yet become real again. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is rather more fragile than its grandiloquent name suggest: so too are the families that add up to make it. Stewart Parker, taken by cancer aged just 47, never lived to see his vision of free urban cycles for all - but he'd have been amused that it took an iconoclast like him to deliver it.