History has a tendency to repeat itself; and if ever a play featured such a literal metaphor, it’s Spokesong, currently in repertoire at the Finborough Theatre. Written by Stephen Parker in 1975, the play sees Frank (Stephen Cavanagh) as he struggles to keep his bicycle repair shop afloat amidst the rumbling troubles of Belfast in the early 1970s. But Frank is more concerned at the imminent demolition of his neighbourhood to make way for a motorway through the city – his solution of free bicycles around the centre the proposed antidote to the problem.
As Frank also sees the return of his estranged brother (a steely-eyed Paul Mallon) and meets a new love interest in Daisy (Elly Condron), his bike shop becomes a place of reflection, often of his dear grandparents (Melanie McHugh and Jack Power), the original Victorian owners, and the scenes gently shifting between the two eras showcasing not only the family’s history but a history of bicycles.
Guy Jones’ slick direction in such a small space is clever, the area often punctuated by the trick cyclist’s (Ben Callon) musical interludes and many characters. However, the many vaudeville-style music numbers fall a bit short of their intended comedy value, and energy feels particularly low, except for the act two opener. Whilst much of the focus is on Frank’s heavy-hearted story, weaving within that is a story with much raw humour – but sometimes this comedy is thrown away and lines could do with a bit more pronouncement.
The play is still appropriate and contemporary to its audience; a mass communal bike haul for residents of the city to use (I wonder where Boris Johnson got his ideas from?) seemingly more significant now than in 70s Belfast. The decked out shop of tyres and bike parts (lovingly designed by Bethany Wells) becomes a symbol of a divided country and its social engineering.
The show’s love story is not your typical one – but then I suppose, neither is the play’s themes of municipal expansion and Belfast’s history – and Condron and Cavanagh’s superb acting make it easy to watch.
Stewart Parker was dubbed the Evening Standard’s most promising playwright on the strength of this play and it’s easy to see why – but its recreation as the first London production in nearly 40 years is a little unsteady at times. Once the production takes off its training wheels though, it becomes a runwaway success, full of wit, great performances and much entertainment.
Spokesong is playing at the Finborough Theatre until 10 June. For more information and tickets, see the Finborough Theatre website.