Also see Sharon's review of On The Twentieth Century
A problem with many autobiographical one-person shows is that their writers/performers are frequently not practiced actors. While they may have interesting stories to tell, they often lack the ability to tell them. Belfast Blues does not suffer from this fault; Geraldine Hughes is an actress. And the fact that Geraldine Hughes is an actress not only makes Belfast Blues a tour de force solo performance, but also gives the show the basis for its plot - because Geraldine Hughes should not have been an actress.
Hughes grew up in abject poverty in Northern Ireland, where her only foray into acting was in a Nativity play. Living in a housing project where garbage overflowed into the hallways and "The Troubles" between Protestants and Catholics frequently intruded on daily life without warning, Hughes could look forward to a future as merely another player in the seemingly endless cycle of violence. She likely would have ended up like her mother, Sheila, a housewife with a half dozen children, a husband who spent his days at the pub or the races, and neighbors that called upon her to "do her part" for the Catholic cause. That fate intervened instead, setting in motion a remarkable chain of events that resulted in Hughes performing her parents' story on a stage in Los Angeles, rather than reliving it in Belfast, is certainly a tale worth telling.
And Hughes tells it beautifully, taking on over twenty roles. She takes her time with her transformations between characters - rather than simply altering her stance, changing her voice, or throwing in a unique mannerism to identify each character, Hughes does all of these things at once, inhabiting each person rather than simply signifying them. At the top of the second act, Hughes portrays a group of people watching a TV show. She moves between each one, identifying them for us and showing us their reaction to the program without saying a single word. It's a terrific act opener, reconfirming the connection between performer and audience, as Hughes demonstrates how well she has brought us into her universe.
For the bulk of the play, Hughes isn't playing her supporting characters; she is simply herself as a young girl, blue eyes opened impossibly wide, as she tries to find her place in the world. Although young Geraldine's Belfast does involve random acts of violence - so much so that she develops symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder - the bulk of the play is simply about young Geraldine's childhood: the illegal store her family ran out of their apartment, her first Communion, the neighborhood kids, eating a full plate of fish and chips on a special occasion. These are small things and events, but when Hughes shows them to us through young Geraldine's eyes, via Hughes's own sharp sense of storytelling, they make for good theatre.
The play's second act places more emphasis on the violence erupting in Belfast and young Geraldine's need to escape it. It is darker and more bittersweet than the first act, but still is not as heartbreaking as a tale set amidst the violence in Northern Ireland could easily be. Belfast Blues is not the draining emotional roller coaster it might have been, but it is a well-performed, well-paced evening of gentle laughter tempered with a few edge-of-your-seat, lump-in-your-throat moments.
The Virtual Theatre Project in association with the Black Dahlia Theatre present Belfast Blues, Written and Performed by Geraldine Hughes. Directed by Charles Haid; Executive Producer Virtual Theatre Project; Producer Steven Klein, Black Dahlia Theatre; Set and Lighting Design Jonathan Christman; Sound Design Jonathan Snipes; Technical Director Rad Hallman; Production Stage Manager Andy Scher; Publicity Ken Werther.
Belfast Blues plays at the Black Dahlia Theatre through February 23, 2003.
Photo by Jonathan Christman