Review: Ulster American at the Traverse Theatre

Ulster American is already nearly completely sold out. No wonder, too.

Never before have I had the luck to see a room full of straight faced critics (lanyards assumed, arms crossed, notebooks primed) have their stoic faces cracked into laughter at the expense of Princess Diana. I won’t ruin the joke. Just be satisfied in knowing it’s filthy, hilarious, and horrific – nicely setting the tone for what’s to come.

Oscar-winning actor Jay (you can picture him easily: slicked back silver hair, necklace tangled in chest hair, heavy rings) has come to the UK to star in a play by new Northern Irish writer Ruth and to connect with his Irish roots. English director Leigh is determined to make his name in the business, so plays the people pleaser as things between these two artists start to get heated.

Tension is the MVP in this play. Award-winning writer David Ireland’s rapid fire dialogue is punctuated with some truly exquisite swearing and the pacing is perfect. Sorry to bring a bit of 2016 word back into the limelight, but triggers are exactly what are on display here. Ireland drags forth the touchiest parts of each of his characters as they push each other further and further. Jay considers himself an Irish Catholic, Ruth considers herself British, and Leigh considers himself to be ‘a real Brit’. The men are self-proclaimed feminists (“I wish I was trans – that’s how much of a feminist I am”) but Jay thinks Bechdel was a man and Leigh thinks that Ruth’s career is all down to him. Jay wants to make Ruth’s Northern Irish protestant play into an IRA play. Leigh wants to do anything that will keep Jay. Naturally, Ruth’s tether is quickly reached. A freshly loaded tweet becomes Chekhov’s loaded gun as Ruth calls times up. There’s some glorious gore, some more grade A swearing, and a grimly cathartic triumph.

Ireland’s script proves he is at the top of his game. Full of sharp satire and black humour ramped up to black hole levels of dark, it dares to actually shock. Luckily, this trio of performers are absolutely up to the challenge. Darrell D’Silva makes the perfect Hollywood brat and Lucianne McEvoy’s furious Ruth captures the frustration that every woman has felt in a roomful of men who support you so much that they smother you. Robert Jack as the frantic, panicked Leigh is fantastic. His comic timing is flawless, particularly as all of the opinions he has repressed beneath a layer of liberalism begin to rise to the surface.

Ulster American is a challenge. Is it controversial? Yes, probably. But this is more than shock material. If you’ve got the stomach to take it on, you’ll find this is a play with much more to say than just a rape joke.

Ulster American, Traverse Theatre, 8-26 Aug (not 13, 20), times vary

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