Theatre Review

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The Independent Culture

YOU CAN'T say they didn't warn you. Yard, the new play by Kaite O'Reilly, comes with a caution: "Not recommended for vegetarians." Set in the ailing knackery of a dysfunctional family of Irish exiles in Birmingham, it would at times test the stomach of the most committed carnivore.

Running up a presumably prodigious butcher's bill, Julie-Anne Robinson's production does not go in for the euphemism of replicas. Dead flesh dangles from hooks and is slapped, business-like, on blocks. The queasiest moment, producing a lot of defensive audience grinning, comes when the mother flourishes a dish of glimmering calves' testicles, mimes the gelding process, then briskly chops them up with a cleaver. And there was I, not even able to cross my legs, since, thanks to the Bush's uniquely uncomfortable seating, my feet were at that point trapped under the bottom of the woman on the ledge below me.

It's worth overcoming any squeamishness, though, for Yard, which, as the, er, joint winner of the 1998 Peggy Ramsay Award, gives notice of a strong, fresh comic talent. The play discovers the Catholic Rourke family in crisis. Supermarkets are swallowing up their kind of small business and the decline accelerates when the boss's treacherous, scavenging brother (Ged McKenna) decides to make some money by letting the donkey sanctuary people in to "liberate" the family pet from the "death camp". The only way they can survive the negative publicity is by winning the Mastercraft Butcher of the Year Award. Yet the only available candidate is the firm's raw recruit (Aidan McArdle) who, at the start, can barely cut the meat on his plate.

Da, magnificently played by Peter Dineen, is a great bull of a man who originally wanted to rear animals rather than slay them. The embattled wife (Kate Binchy), who lives on memories of what he was like before he took to beating her, has worked alongside him for 10 years without directly addressing a word to him. Now their daughter (Dawn Bradfield) is pregnant from some anonymous encounter. O'Reilly's achievement is to present this world in vividly colliding perspective. At one moment, you see butchery through the eyes of Da, who likens himself to the "Creator's opposite" in some elevated reverse of Genesis, scorning vacuum-packed supermarket meat as "void of a sense of having lived". The next, you view it from the level of one whose privilege it is to wash the shit out of the third intestine of a carcass.

The script has a scathing eloquence: "Wouldn't give you the drip off the end of their nose, but if it has four legs they'd fucking marry it," is how animal rights activists are tenderly typified at one point. True, the overall shape of the play is not as satisfying as the pleasures that can be derived scene by scene. But O'Reilly is a talent to watch, as many punters will remark over their post-show lentil burgers.

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