David Harrower
Emma Jordan
Dan Gordon, Lisa Hogg
8th September 2011
24th September 2011
The Lyric Theatre, the Sean Hollywood Arts Centre, Theatre at the Mill, Strule Arts Centre and the Market Place Theatre

Marie Louise Muir talks about Blackbird with Graine McFadden and Jane Coyle on Arts Extra 


Belfast Telegraph - Graine McFadden 

Fine Piece of Theatre Tackles A Big Issue

* * * *

"It might seem strange, when reviewing a play that is packed with riveting dialogue, to suggest that the most remarkable thing about it is the silence.

David Harrower’s Blackbird sets up a confrontation between Ray, a dishevelled, unremarkable man, and Una – a sharp, brittle, beautiful young woman.

They were lovers, many years earlier, and ran away together.

He was 41 and she was 12. Real life caught up with them. Ray was sent to prison, but has managed to rebuild his life.

Now, 15 years later, Una has tracked him down, and wants to tell him about hers.

I’ve never known anything quite like it.

Harrower looks below the headlines about sex offenders to ask whether there’s a role for love amid the mess.

The questions raised are uncomfortable and necessary.

The performances are outstanding. Dan Gordon plays magnificently against type as the befuddled, cringing Ray who has clawed his way back to respectability.

Lisa Hogg’s Una is a study in damage limitation – voice icy calm while her hands dance, like butterflies, by her side. It’s everything theatre should be: confrontational, challenging and compelling."



"What would you do if confronted with your sordid past, when faced with the naked shame of an act you thought long buried? It’s a common enough theme in modern drama. But in Prime Cut’s very welcome revival of David Harrower’s Blackbird, there is nothing so easy as a satisfying comeuppance. 

Instead, Blackbird offers what feels uncomfortably like a truthful discourse on abuse and how ill-suited our careful moral conventions often are to processing such acts.

55-year-old Ray (Dan Gordon) is a reasonably successful middle-management type: affable, slightly bumbling, likeable even. A young woman named Una (Lisa Hogg) comes to see him in his workplace, and we join the pair making awkward salutations in a messy staff common room.

It becomes clear very quickly that an increasingly distressed Ray isn’t pleased to see Una. Furthermore, he’s scared. The rotten penny drops almost immediately that Ray and Una have in fact been lovers. The gut-punch here is that Ray and Una were together 15 years ago, when he was 40 and she was 12 years of age.

Ray has moved on since his ‘relationship’ with the child Una; prison, treatment and a new name have 'earned' him a normal life and even a wife. But the past has not been so easy for Una to forget.

Dan Gordon is extremely convincing as Ray, this rather boring, fearful man who has prepped and finessed his justifications for years, but doesn’t quite believe them himself. 'I was wearing tight shorts and I clearly didn’t get an erection' is one hugely horrific/hilarious reminiscence of a family barbecue he relays to convey the initial innocence of his affections for a pre-pubescent Una.

Throughout, Gordon perspires, fidgets and seems to physically diminish before our eyes, during one scene, as he sits silently broken, looking out to the audience as Una retraces the last sorry moments they had together before the real world – police, parents, the press – came crashing down around them.

Lisa Hogg positively shines as Una, a damaged child in a woman’s body, the very mirror of her 12 year old self. When she delivers lines like 'I wanted to put out your eyes, eyes that had looked at me', her pained delivery is such that you almost feel sorry for Ray.

Throughout, Hogg imbues Lisa with a tragically toxic combination of vulnerability and steely malevolence that convincingly essays how abuse doesn’t just go away once the perpetrator has been removed. When Una discovers that Ray's new name is the gentrified Peter Trevallion, for example, she remarks caustically on his attempts to reinvent: 'The rich have sex with underage girls too.'

Gradually, the story progresses from a tense confrontation to something altogether more terrifying and nerve snapping – as a sickening, but apparently real, affection and intimacy develops between the two. It’s testimony to director Emma Jordan and the actors involved that this is handled without fuss in as deft a sleight of hand as you’re likely to see on stage anywhere this year.

We’re annoyingly complex animals, us humans. We enforce parameters and codes to co-exist peaceably, harmoniously and without causing harm, yet contradict ourselves at every turn. Blackbird takes us to the grey areas we least like to go, but should probably visit more often. All the better to understand ourselves and our often capricious and subjective relationship with morality."



David Harrower’s Blackbird is not an easy or straightforward play. Its narrative brings face-to-face Ray, a middle-manager in a small town factory, with Una, a woman in her late twenties who he abused when she was twelve. She has returned to confront him, to wreak a kind of revenge for the years she has lost since the night he abandoned her in a ferry port when he ran away with her. That revenge is to threaten the new life he has formed since his release from prison. So far, so simple. The crux of the issue is not, however, that she has been scarred by his sexual abuse of her; rather that, in abandoning her, he broke her heart and that after all this time she still aches with her feelings for him.

Casting Dan Gordon in the role of Ray adds a further layer to this. He is not the monstrous paedophile of tabloid scare stories; rather, both ghosting and resisting Gordon’s own affable stage and television personae, he is insistently reasonable in his response to Una. As the play progresses and Ray’s vulnerability comes increasingly to the surface, Gordon’s body seems to collapse into itself, as his declared love for Una and the stakes he has in his current life contest within him. The physical contrast provided by the slim frame of Lisa Hogg’s Una could not be greater. She exhibits both an adult knowingness and sense of attack in her engagement with Ray, while glimpses of her earlier childish self seep through at key points. These are deftly realised and complex figures that resist categorisation.

As a study in economical writing and dramatic plotting, the script is fantastic. The meeting takes place in the factory’s dilapidated staff room and Harrower is able to provide compelling reasons for why the two characters stay committed to this meeting, despite the distress it causes them. The offstage presence of other characters walking around the building, ringing on the telephone and calling at the door only increases the pressure. It is in this aspect that the performances excel. Gordon and Hogg sustain convincingly the tension between the characters that keeps them trapped in the room. They play each moment with a well-judged physical intensity that keeps the audience rivetted. Sometimes this results in sharp barbs; at one point, in outright violence. Each moment is beautifully weighted and the overall effect is absorbing. When each is given an opportunity to explain what happened on the night that they last were together, both actors are able to reveal and contain the deep-seated emotions that still inhabit their characters.

Prime Cut Productions present 'Blackbird' by David Harrower.It is in this control that the production excels, never giving way to easy emotion. Jordan’s direction is authoritative, allowing space for the action to develop and for the effects of the meeting on each of the characters to be registered and developed. Particularly crucial is the stillness they exhibit in responding to the other’s story of how they came to be parted. This places the audience in a difficult place. Una’s earliest accusations clearly lay out the case against Ray: his responsibility as an adult to rebuke her childish infatuation, rather than his grooming of her as an object of his desire. Against this, the audience witnesses the revelation of a deep commitment between them that has survived the passage of time and circumstance. Una reveals how she was victimised by the legal processes and traumatised by her parents’ reaction to the relationship with Ray, forced to remain in the same street and at the same school to ensure her sense of shame.

Stuart Marshall’s battleship grey, single-room set, provides the crucible for this action. It is littered with the detritus of the workers’ discarded take-away boxes, under the insistent hum of unforgiving florescent lights, accompanied by the dripping rain visible at an upper window. A perspex panel in the back wall allows the off-stage characters to be seen as they come and go, their presence only exacerbating the forces pressing in on Ray.

Ultimately, the production asks more questions than it answers and this is to its credit. Neither character’s account of what happened can be taken as a transparent rendition of the events, yet both retain the power to provoke powerful emotions in the spectator. It is in engaging with this emotional response that each spectator must also come to an ethical judgement. Jordan’s production, like Harrower’s script, makes this difficult, but no less crucial.