Review: Cyprus Avenue, Royal Court

Eric (Stephen Rea) has recently become a grandfather. His daughter Julie (Amy Molloy) had a baby, Mary-May, five and a half weeks ago. Her mother and Eric’s wife Bernie (Andrea Irvine) is besotted with her, but not Eric. Eric is convinced that Mary-May is actually Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Féin. This fact would be considerably less alarming if Eric wasn’t a Belfast Loyalist. After a critically acclaimed run at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, David Ireland’s revered black comedy Cyprus Avenue has returned to the Royal Court, this time moved down a level, and directed by Vicky Featherstone.

The play begins, and Eric is quite amusing. He’s about every ‘ist’ you can image – sexist, racist, homophobic – the lot. He’s in therapy, with his black female clinical psychologist Bridget (Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo), going over recent events. He comes out with things you might expect your one racist uncle to say at Christmas, including “I didn’t know they had black doctors” and even going as far as to say his own daughter was a “cunt” as a baby.

Eric insults everyone he comes across. He buys a pair of miniature glasses from Build-a-Bear and a black marker from a corner shop draws a beard on Mary-May to test his hypothesis that she is, in fact, Gerry Adams, the “dirty aul’ Fenian fucker.” And it’s all very, very funny. Rea is bumbling, grumbling, miserable old bugger. He seems harmless, we might wonder if he perhaps is experiencing the beginnings of dementia, but at just over an hour in, things take a very sour turn. We spend the first 70 minutes laughing our way through Eric’s ridiculousness, and the last 30 flinching, gasping, and watching through our fingers. Nothing is funny anymore.

Ireland’s play is about identity more than anything, as Eric struggles to find a middle ground as a modern Ulster loyalist. He can’t strike a balance between being a Protestant unionist and being Irish/British in the way that his daughter and wife can. He similarly struggles to fathom that Bridget is British, not “African” as he labels her, and has to have some water and a moment to process the fact. A violent manifestation of the darkest side of his mind presents itself as Slim (Chris Corrigan), a loyalist paramilitary who regrets joining the UVF after the peace process started, as it was a “very bad time to become a terrorist.” Corrigan’s performance as both the devil and angel on Eric’s shoulder is manic but considered, providing valuable insight into Eric’s psyche.

Despite being comprised of a cast of six, it feels like a one-man endeavour as we watch Eric’s nosedive into absurdity. Scenes between Rea and Adékoluẹjo are enjoyable as she runs rings around him with logic and concern, but it’s Rea’s skill and Ireland’s words that make Cyprus Avenue what it is. Some might argue that this play serves only Northern Ireland, but it does much more than that. It is a warning not to dwell on the past. Julie pleads with her father to stop “fighting old battles that nobody cares about anymore”, but he just can’t do it. His father was a fighter; his father’s father was a fighter. Eric has nothing to fight for, and it drives him insane. Ireland’s play is a side-achingly funny and nauseatingly violent warning against sectarianism.

Cyprus Avenue is playing until 23 March. For more information and tickets, visit the Royal Court Theatre website.