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Review: On Blueberry Hill (Trafalgar Studios)

Sebastian Barry's production has previously played in Dublin and New York

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Niall Buggy in On Blueberry Hill
© Marc Brenner

Sebastian Barry has a wonderful way with words. He weaves spells out of language, tugging you into his stories, making you lean into his world. His characters talk about the "wide blaze of a summer day", of "fourpenny bars of Cadbury's chocolate which had melted in a very agreeable way", of a seaside bay unfolding "like the bedclothes of God". They "rage with happiness" or express pride in a boy "as soft as a hot cross bun". In their soft Irish accents, they talk and talk and through that talk describe their whole lives.

The characters we are dealing with here, in Barry's first new play to be seen in London for ten years – written in 2017 for the Fishamble theatre company and already staged in Dublin and New York – are PJ and Christy. They are prisoners, we quickly learn, sitting one at the top and one at the bottom of a grey bunk bed that is the only object on Sabine Dargent's stylised set, surrounded by sheets of yellowing paper.

The men don't talk to each other in this 100-minute duologue, though. Until the very close, one is always in darkness while the other one speaks. They talk instead to us, the audience, taking us into their confidence as slowly they track their way through childhood, to adulthood, to the terrible circumstances that bind them together in ways we cannot imagine, ways that involve anger, death and huge grief.

I think you do, quite quickly, begin to guess at the link between them, but since part of the fascination of the event is letting the narrative unfold, it would be a shame to give it away here. The only problem is that it is a very tall tale, one that pushes the boundaries of belief into incredulity. It is mesmeric, but ultimately unreal.

Nevertheless, Jim Culleton's sensitive, gentle direction makes you want to carry on listening. More than that, the performances by Niall Buggy as the rambunctious Christy and David Ganly as the more educated, more restrained PJ, are both wondrous.

Both men have the most remarkable ability to be still, to mine the smallest gestures of naturalism and so make you feel that they are not trying to be anyone else other than themselves. Yet the performances are also highly wrought, precise character studies of men whose lives have been full of sorrow, but also touched by what Christy describes as the happiness that comes with the sense that "sometimes life is stacked up all right".

The writing is occasionally over-wrought – and as the play wends towards its conclusion it strains for a significance that it hasn't quite earned. Yet the acting is always pitch perfect. It makes the play profoundly moving and deeply engrossing. When it's over, you feel you have been on the longest of journeys with these two quiet men.