Review: CYPRUS AVENUE at Holden Street Theatres

One man is angry with Northern Ireland at peace.

By: Oct. 20, 2023
Review: CYPRUS AVENUE at Holden Street Theatres
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Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Thursday 19th October 2023.

The latest production from Red Phoenix Theatre, under its new Artistic Director, Libby Drake, is David Ireland’s 2016 very, very black comedy/drama, Cyprus Avenue, directed by Nick Fagan. Fagan has assembled a strong cast and builds the production to its shocking conclusion.

The play opens with Eric Miller talking with Bridget, a psychotherapist. He is surprised by the fact that she is a woman, young, and of African descent, and not an older white man, as he had anticipated. During the course of the play, he recounts the events that brought him to this point. We follow a succession of flashbacks to the significant incidents as they occurred.

Eric Miller looks at his granddaughter, who is only five weeks old, and is convinced that she looks like the Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams. He next accuses his daughter of having slept with Gerry Adams, before deciding that little Mary-May is actually Gerry Adams, disguised as a baby and infiltrating his family. He draws a beard on the child with a black marker pen to confirm his suspicions. He is, as we used to say, as nutty as a fruitcake.

His daughter, Julie, is horrified at Eric’s accusations, and his wife, Bernie, kicks him out. He walks for miles and sits in the park in contemplation, where he meets Slim, a man disappointed that the peace process started before he had a chance to kill a single Republican. They have much in common.

Gerard "Gerry" Adams (Gearóid Mac Ádhaimh) is a Catholic Irish Republican, and the past president of Sinn Féin, the political wing of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Their aim was to make Northern Ireland rejoin the Republic of Ireland, a process of reunification. He was later heavily involved in the peace process, in exchange for a devolved government in Northern Ireland, with the IRA ceasing to fight in 1995, and declaring that the war was over, in 2005. He retired from politics in early 2020.

Belfast Loyalist, Eric, is played by Brant Eustice, who is no newcomer to playing bizarre characters. As a loyalist, Eric wants Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. He insists that he is British, not Irish, an attestation also made by a character in Ulster American, a play that I reviewed in May this year.

Many of the Ulster loyalists, Protestants, used violence against Catholics living there. Believing his granddaughter is the enemy leader stirs up all of his old hatred. He cannot let go of the past. He admires the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force), although there is no mention of the feuds that occurred between various rival Loyalist paramilitary organisations, particularly the UVF and the UDA (Ulster Defence Association) in the mid-1970s, as well as, later, the LVF (Loyalist Volunteer Force). That sounds a little like a scene from Monty Python’s film, The Life of Brian.

His identity crisis is based on his political stance, and involvement in ‘the troubles’. Peace has taken away from him everything that he felt made him what he is. His anger is unabated; he hates the Fenians, an offensive and derogatory term for the Irish Catholic republicans. Fenian is shortened from Fianna Eireann, the fictional character, Finn MacCumhaill’s (MacCool), band of warriors.

Brant Eustice gives another of his powerful characterisations as the deranged Eric, with a creditable Belfast accent to boot. The comedy turns to drama as the deluded Eric goes from suspicion, to anger, to frustration, to insanity. Eustice negotiates the decline of Eric with great skill and nuance in a bravura performance.

Lyn Wilson, as Bernie, gives another of her well-considered performances. This time she portrays a strong woman who is forced to stand up to her husband for her daughter and granddaughter. Julie is played by Emily Currie, giving us a loving and devoted mother, highly protective of her little daughter, courageously standing up to Eric and his irrational accusations.

Rhoda Sylvester is cool, calm, and collected as Bridget, every bit the detached therapist, listening and asking probing questions, seeking to understand Eric’s actions. Brendan Cooney is wonderfully manic as the frustrated and confrontational, Slim, caught up in Eric’s fantasy and, in a twisted way, collaborating.

To say much more would be to give away everything, and spoil it for those who have not yet seen this play. You will have to find out the rest for yourself by buying a ticket.

Loyalist slogans and symbols adorn the walls, and a large square of carpet delineates the performance area, with just a few seats to complete Fagan’s set, which is imaginatively lit, as usual, by Richard Parkhill.

I did find the positioning of the chairs a little problematic as it placed Sylvester well downstage of Eustice in the therapy sessions, turning her away from the audience. Crossing her downstage leg, and holding her downstage arm across her body turned her even further away from the audience, leaving us looking mostly at the back of her head and, as she was then speaking away from the audience, some of her dialogue was hard to catch. This, presumably, was to put the focus fully on Eric, but moving the chairs a little so that we would be looking into the opening of a vee shape, and reversing her posture, so that we could see her facial reactions to his dialogue, would have been more satisfying. It is a minor quibble, though, with what was otherwise a fine production.

There is, of course, a Cyprus Avenue in Belfast, made famous in his song of that title by Van Morrison, who saw that road as a step up from his home, on the other side of the tracks, literally. It was considered upmarket, and is separated from his childhood street by the railway.

You only have until Saturday 28th to catch this one, and you should know by now that Red Phoenix productions regularly sell out, so don’t delay.


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