Saturday 10 August 2013

The Boat Factory

Kings Head Theatre, London


Written by Dan Gordon
Directed by Philip Crawford

Michael Ondron (l) and Dan Gordon

The Boat Factory is that fine and rare piece of modern theatre. It’s a simply staged two-hander about the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast. But where Roald Dahl has used a fictional chocolate factory to tell morality tales, Dan Gordon takes strands of historical fact and weaves them into the most beautiful yarn. The Boat Factory didn’t just dominate East Belfast, it provided the core to a community’s culture and a way of life.

Writer Gordon also plays Davy Gordon, a man introduced to us in the modern era, awaiting the results of a chest x-ray that are clearly signalled to be ominous. As Gordon confronts his mortality, he takes us on a journey of discovery, retracing his life through a series of exchanges with fellow shipyard worker Geordie Kilpatrick played by Michael Condron. Both men frequently slip in and out of different characters as foils to Gordon’s narrative acting out moments of the company’s history upon a stage of the simplest scaffolding with a blown-up image of a map of the massive shipyard for a backdrop

If the stage is simple, Gordon’s words are crafted with almost technicolor detail. We learn of the dominance of the factory over the city. We hear of the men’s pride in the company’s achievement in 1912 of building the yard’s biggest ship to that date, #401 Titanic. No moist-eyed look at Titanic’s tragedy here though, rather the glow of engineers simply basking in the deserved glory of their achievement and their subsequent devastation at the fact that this magnificent ship had sunk because a reckless owner demanded it be raced through an ice-field at night.

And its this attention to the minutest of detail that drives the success of Gordon’s play. Apprenticeships in the H&W shipyard were not only dreamed of by the city’s young men, they were actually paid for by the young trainees and even then the apprentices still had to supply their own tools! We hear of the scant disregard for an emergent health & safety culture, the factory frequently consuming its workers’ limbs, livelihoods and ultimately their lives, yet with brilliantly black humour we learn too of the skilled carpenters and joiners who cheekily used both the company's time and its materials to privately build and sell kitchens to the folk of East Belfast. No stranger too to the pain of sectarianism, Gordon acknowledges the complexities of the decades of religious hatred that have scarred his beautiful province with a well-crafted and respectful sensitivity.

Condron and Gordon’s familiarity with their work (recently back from a month’s residency in New York off-Broadway) has seen the play evolve into the smoothest of double acts. Their understanding of the text’s timing and nuances has become innate and whilst the sharply observed humour of the piece may make you cry with laughter, their tales of shipyard tragedy all related with honesty in place of soppy sentimentality, will make you sob.

For those (most) of us who know all about the tragedy of the Titanic, yet virtually nothing of the city that gave itself and its people, literally, to the construction of that ship and thousands of others too, The Boat Factory is a glorious celebration of Belfast and of its culture. It is one of the most beautiful pieces of theatre in town right now and it is a play that must be seen.

Runs until 17th August, and then from August 21st - 24th in Caithness, Scotland 

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