Irish Blood, English Heart is a new play created by Darren Murphy in association with Ancient Lights Theatre Company. Ancient Lights was formed in 2010 by a collective of writers and directors who have committed themselves to telling the stories “that lie buried within the stones, strata, and surfaces of London streets”. This play was therefore not only created specifically for Southwark’s Union Theatre, but is about the surrounding area and the history of the people who live here.
This becomes clear from the moment we enter the space. Everything about the set smacks of urban patriotism. At one end of the stage stands a black cab, severed behind the bonnet, its surface smothered in a layer of dust. At the other end a road map of London covers the wall, a St George’s flag crossed over its intricately labelled streets and junctions. The audience sits in traverse, facing one another in a manner that, whether deliberately or not, reminds one of sitting on the underground. Even the theatre itself, situated below a Southwark railway bridge, has a brooding, industrial feel to it. You cannot help but attach a historical significance to the clamour of the trains as they roll overhead.
Irish Blood, English Heart tells the story of three men, Mr Sweeny, an emigrant Irishman who learnt every street and corner of London on his arrival in order to become a good cabbie and a ‘true Londoner’, and his two middle aged sons, Ray and Con. Mr Sweeny himself never appears on stage; we are informed early on that he committed suicide in his own cab several months ago. Instead his presence is conjured in lurid colours by his two sons, whose differing memories create a vivid caricature of a man loved and loathed in equal measure by his family, for whom he was both mentor and monster.
I thoroughly enjoyed this play. Murphy’s image of adult family life is brittle and accurate; the relationship between the brothers played out through a subtle mix of unsaid jealousies and bottled tension. Howard Teale’s performance as Ray is particularly good. Ray, the more successful of the two brothers, has returned briefly from America in order to visit Con. Teale plays the part with a charismatic energy, bringing an aura of charm to the stage which perfectly patronises the emotionally fraught relationship between Con and his wife Peggy.
The highlight of the play occurs at the beginning of the second act, when Ray recites a five minute long poem proclaiming the glories and failures of London. Reminiscent of Edward Norton’s famous ‘Fuck You’ monologue in the film 25th Hour, this poem is written and executed with skill, and is a nice example of a growing trend in contemporary spoken word.
The play’s themes of alcoholism, nationalism and child abuse may feel a little heavy handed to some audience members, but for me the key reason why Irish Blood, English Heart works is that it never allows itself to become hackneyed. Every moment of potential hyperbole (“A man is better than the worst thing he’s ever done”) is followed by a sharp and very British put down (“Who said that? Harold Shipman?”).
Amusing, clever and close to the bones of London, Irish Blood, English Heart is a convincing exploration of the ties of blood and nationalism. I recommend it to both Londoners and non-Londoners alike.
Irish Blood, English Heart is running at the Union Theatre until 5th March. More information and tickets on the website here.