Paul T Davies reviews On Blueberry Hill, a play by Sebastian Barry now playing at Trafalgar Studios London.
On Blueberry Hill
11 March 2020
Sebastian Barry is one of Ireland’s finest writers; author of many a prize-winning novel. In response to his son coming out to him, Barry gifted him, (and us), the beautiful novel Days Without End, a novel of the triumph, against all odds, of gay love. His characters are human, flawed and often crushed by their own insecurities and upbringing, and he writes for the stage intermittently, and perhaps not often enough! On Blueberry Hill features two men, Christy and PJ, who share a prison cell, who are connected by death under the most terrible circumstances, and who have love for each other. Though this is not an outright LGBTQ play, it is a triumph of continuing reconciliation and understanding.
The characters speak in alternating monologues, not making eye contact until the final seconds of the play. As their stories progress, we come to realise that they are delivering their final confessions, to us, their audience and priest. PJ reveals his love for a young man, and the tragic circumstances that have led to him being in the cell, and his ingrained self homophobia that led him to speak three words to two witnesses that led to his harsh sentencing. That the boy was Christy’s son, and his revenge was to murder PJ’s beloved mother, threatens to move the play towards melodrama, given the unlikely circumstances of the two sharing a cell.
That melodrama does not raise its regretful head is down to the superb performances, Barry’s subtle and aching dialogue- loss fills in the darkness between the men- and Fishamble’s superb production, beautifully directed by Jim Culleton. Naill Buggy is his usual excellent self as Christy, the more practical of the two, son of a tinker, pragmatic, yet with a heart swimming with love as well as anger. He was a father who walked his son to the local dance and waited for him, so his son could dance without fear of being queer bashed. David Ganly is equally superb as PJ, the quiet man, his faith challenged, his love never forgotten. They are completely at home with Barry’s intricate dialogue, never overplaying the bond that knits the two men together. With just their bunk bed as almost the sole set and prop, they hold quiet majesty over the audience, enthralling performances shot through with that unique Irish humour.
As the threat of PJ’s successful parole looms closer, the men realise they can’t live without each other, and they agree a pact, providing us with the most moving and sensitively acted conclusion. With no distractions, this is a play of storytelling triumph, as we are welcomed into their world and history. Highly recommended.