‘The triumph of a heart’ by Pius Meagher
I’m going to be honest from the get-go here: I thought I would hate the Devious Theatre Company’s play, Heart Shaped Vinyl. I really did. I didn’t think I’d hate it because of bad writing, bad acting, bad directing etc; I thought I would hate it because I absolutely hate plays which use pop culture references.
It’s not just because they date so quickly, but I always found it annoying that a writer would try to name drop bands, films and books through his characters – to show us all how “cool” and “happening” he or she is.
This kind of thing has annoyed me to the point of madness in the past, and I thought a whole play based on songs, and which would unashamedly be dropping pop culture icons, would drive me to furious distraction.
I’d heard some great reports about it, but the more great reports I heard the more sceptical I became – surely this will be the theatrical equivalent of popular fiction? I thought. I’ll never go for it, maybe just quietly slip out after the first act and go on my unmerry way.
But I could not remove myself from these characters lives. All I can say is, if you loved Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity – and if you’re fanatical about your music- you will absolutely love this play.
I hate Nick Hornby and that trite film of the aforementioned book, but I loved this play. I saw a lot of Woody Allen’s influence in it (stormy relationships as subject matter, witty dialogue, quirky characters, and a keen eye for the grand and the great in the simple and the small) and I found it to be a quick moving, funny, warm and very human play, warts and all. The fact that I came back for the second act is proof enough to myself that Heart Shaped Vinyl is something special, and here I must congratulate its author, John Morton. The fantastic ensemble cast (which also included himself) though, must get the brunt of the credit for bringing his humorous and superbly realised vision to life.
A play is only as good as the actors who breathe life into it, and what a job the whole crew did (including the director Kevin Mooney and the designer of the fantastic posters, Paddy Dunne, whose superb eye catching adverts must have attracted a good many people to the show in their own right); the young actors made two hours go by in what seemed like 20 minutes.
Young Morton has a great ear for dialogue, a gift most playwrights would kill for; the speech and manner of all the characters is as natural as water from a spring, thankfully not resorting to the new Anglo-American version of English most young Irelanders speak these days (e.g “Hello?”, “Whatever”, “I’m SO not going to see that band etc). The plays premise is simple: five couples through five decades love and lose, flatter and bicker, heal and hurt each other, all sound tracked to the music of each successive generation, and enlivened by its importance to each of them; music itself also brings these people together and, inevitably and sometimes indirectly, pushes them apart. Rather than Act One and Act Two, it’s Side One and Side Two; like the sides of a vinyl record, and each of the five scenes in both acts is named after a song.
We start in 1962 with Julie (Simone Kelly) and Gerry (John Morton), the singer and drummer, respectively, in a show band. From the off the dialogue is cracking as Kelly expertly brings Julie to life in front of us – she is a convincing drunk, a hard thing to pull off for even the most seasoned of actors – and we are already in stitches before the bumbling Gerry even arrives. And with his “Aaaaaas” and st-st-stammer he reminded me at times of Bertie Ahern. He resists Julie’s rash offer of escape, sticking loyally to his plan of marriage, thus denying himself what his heart obviously wants.
In 1977, DeeDee (Suzanne O’Brien) holds the punk singer Jimmy Skids (Ross Costigan) hostage after a drunken one night stand. In a Misery-like scene, DeeDee has captured her hero – her ultimate souvenir – and he is equally scared and flattered by all this. His band, The Skidmarks, are on the rise and he quickly comes over to the mad fan’s side and lets her into his life. A short scene, appropriately enough, that is a homage to the necessity and immeasurable importance of punk rock in its brevity alone.
Possibly the funniest character of them all, Liam (David Thompson) introduces us to the 1980’s, trying desperately to bed his new young ladyfriend, Sue (Amy Dunne) and – even more importantly, it would seem – to find the right music to accompany the deed. Thompson is a gifted actor and his comic timing and natural showmanship made the pretentious artist the most popular character of the night. Dunne provided the perfect straight role for Liam’s oddball eccentricity to flourish – definitely the most enjoyable couple of the show.
In 1997 we meet Grainne (Lisa Bergin) and Des (Ken McGuire) who are thrown together on a blind date on the day, we soon discover, that Jeff Buckley’s fish eaten, maggot riddled carcass is fished out of the lake. They bond a little in their shared grief, but the main magnet here is Des’ obsession with rare vinyl and Grainne’s promised inheritance of her father’s record collection. This couple are very hard to warm to – Des is very much an Oasis inspired new lad, while Grainne seems like a ladette trying to be cool with her choice of bands – but there’s promise…
The last song on Side One brings us to 2003 and also to the most annoying characters, Sean (Kevin Mooney) and Kate (Niamh Moroney). They sit on a bench and exchange mixed tapes – he, a yabbering twonk; she, a wannabe bad girl – and all I want to do is escort the two of them, by the scruff of their scrawny teenaged necks, to a meeting with Jeff Buckley.
The first half one was gone, but so too was my plan of heading off: I had to go back and see more. I decided I’d stay for the first three scenes, then head away for the last two, seeing as I didn’t have much time for Des and Grainne and Sean and Kate. I didn’t though, I stayed – and I was glad I did. Act Two – sorry, Side Two – moves on in time: Julie and Gerry (bitter reunion in ’68 after Gerry’s failed marriage and Julie’s fame and fortune); DeeDee and Jimmy (“Deirdre” as she’s now known, has a poncey new boyfriend – Bryan, played by Sean Hackett – and Jimmy is left behind as new wave replaces punk in 1979); Liam and Sue (’89 – one year on – and Liam’s got a new tasty bit of flesh called Maeve, played by Hazel Fahy – but he’s neglected to tell Sue; hilarity isn’t the word!); Grainne and Des (’99 as they’re breaking up; Des is a likeable fella now but Grainne is still an infuriating bitch); and finally Kate and Sean in 2006 – post college, and they’re even more annoying than the last time; yer man has that annoying D4 Trinity Ball accent and sports a backpack (grrrr), while she has become a little softer but even more galling for some reason.
I was glad I stayed though because the very last line spoken in the play (courtesy of the bauld hoor, Kate) would seem to render the whole two hours of what we’ve just seen null and void. But only superficially; it’s a throwaway comment used in passive aggressiveness, and it melts away almost as soon as it leaves her mouth – but this is the plays knockout punch! Because when you see the 12 strong cast coming out at the end for their well deserved bows, you know what an electrical performance you’ve experienced; Heart Shaped Vinyl is Fun (capital ‘F’ intended), and it will have a very long and far reaching shelf life – I’d put money on it – and it becomes quickly apparent that it’s not a showing off device for Morton’s vast knowledge of popular music, rather it is a labour of love on something he’s genuinely passionate about.
This play would go down a storm at the Edinburgh festival, or even at the Cat Laughs festival here in Kilkenny, if you could make sure no lagered up bozos turned up to ruin it!
It is that rich in effortless and seemingly casual comedy. What can I say? I was swept away (Buckley-like, ha!) by this super show and though I had gone out in s**t humour, I emerged from the backroom theatre with a smile on my face and a song spinning round in my head (for some reason it was Potato Junkie by Therapy?, a violently happy memory from my surly angry youth). So three cheers for this brilliant young gang of bright stars, they did a magnificent job. I laughed often and without contempt. The futures so bright they’ll have to wear shades….