Truant Company staged something of a coup securing permission from Morrissey and Marr to use Smiths’s songs in their new production. The potential for embarrassment if the play turned out to be below standard was considerable. Fortunately there is no such problem with Billy Cowan’s Still Ill.
Against his better judgement Tommy (Neal McWilliams) leaves his successful career, lover and allotment in Manchester to return to his native Belfast and help out his alienated brother Davey (Ian Curley) whose drug dealing has offended the paramilitary.
He encounters Gary (Sean Croke) with whom he shared a teenage passion for The Smiths and for whom he carried an unrequited torch. Although married with children Gary has begun to explore his sexuality and is now willing to return Tommy’s interest. But Gary has darker secrets as well.
Still Ill is a satisfyingly complex play that touches on a number of themes-including resentment and regret – but avoids simple judgements and neat conclusions. The motivation for a character joining the paramilitary is not dogmatic but simply fear- the option is join or die.
Typical of this approach are the characters of Davey and his wife Elaine (Alison Darling). Ian Curley plays Davey as a resentful and sulky child only to later reveal that, in his own fashion, he supported his brother’s gay lifestyle. Darling gives a tightly controlled performance as a woman whose life has been shaped by limited choices on offer in Belfast and who has to be mature enough to force her husband to accept the reality of their situation.
Overall, however, the tone is the bittersweet clash between naïve youthful hopes and adult experience. Tommy is amazed at the choices made by Gary – after all, he used to like The Smiths. Sean Croke and Neal McWilliams take fascinatingly different approaches to their characters being given, in effect, a second chance.
Croke bravely takes a selfish direction – Gary is so self-obsessed he seems amazed that Tommy does not sympathise with the choices that he has made although they involve pain for his family and others. McWilliams’s tormented performance suggests Tommy is emerging from years of living with compromise and, although desperate to grab his opportunity, is wracked with shame and guilt at the possible consequences.
Director Joyce Branagh catches the varying moods with precision. The simmering resentment between the brothers is reflected in the inability of Curley and McWilliams to make any eye contact during their early scenes. The tentative courtship between Tommy and Gary, although expressed in profane language, has charm and is full of humour as the two revert to their juvenile passions.
Still Ill is not perfect – the Irish accents are not consistent throughout and the use of The Smiths’s songs at every scene change actually gets a bit distracting. But these are minor quibbles and do not spoil the enjoyment of a demanding and very moving play.
Still Ill is at the Lowry until 15 November.