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Belfast boyhood
Mojo offers a kids’-eye view of the Troubles
Mojo Mickybo
By Owen McCafferty. Directed by Carmel O’Reilly. Set by J. Michael Griggs. Lighting by Tess James. Costumes by Sarah Chapman. Sound by Matt Griffin. With Colin Hamell and Billy Meleady. Presented by Súgán Theatre Company at the Boston Center for the Arts through April 24.

To have "money in your pocket, a horse to your ass, and a gun in your holster" is the dream of the eponymous Belfast mini-toughs of Mojo Mickybo. The two lads, one Protestant, one Catholic, meet in the sweltering summer of 1970, as both sides tense for the annual Protestant Orange celebrations of July 12, and soon become "thick as two small thieves," joined at the hip by a mutual enthusiasm for the George Roy Hill outlaw film of the previous year, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But is the attraction of the cowboy movie really the horses and the holsters? Like Butch and Sundance, who have ridden their luck to the limit and are looking to hightail it to Bolivia, Mojo and Mickybo long to escape the mean streets of Belfast, where the confrontational world of the children mirrors the grown-up one from which scary, hate-fueled snippets trickle down.

Written by 42-year-old Northern Ireland playwright Owen McCafferty, who doubtless draws on his own childhood devotion to the drolly larcenous Butch and Sundance, Mojo Mickybo won best-play awards at both the Edinburgh and Dublin fringe festivals as well as a Granada TV Best Play Award. Seen here in its New England premiere in an energetic production by Súgán Theatre Company, it proves to be a sweet play, reminiscent in the showboating opportunity it presents its two actors of Marie Jones’s Stones in His Pockets, which is also sparked by a collision of dead-end Irish economy and politics with the fantasy machine of American film.

In this one, acting mates Billy Meleady and Colin Hamell (memorable as the lethally warring brothers in the Súgán staging of Martin McDonagh’s The Lonesome West) get to go back to the sandbox as the bristling 10-year-olds of the title, rolling down hills and playing air-machine-gun as well as donning the 14 other roles, from two sets of parents to the slightly older neighborhood goons Fuckface and Gank the Wank to a drunken Major guarding the as-yet-unlit bonfire awaiting the Orange parades. But virtuosic though the duo’s performance caper is, Mojo Mickybo, clocking in at just over an hour, is winsome stuff. For a more brutal and imaginative depiction of play time on a war ground, see Serb playwright Biljana Srbljanovic’s Family Stories.

McCafferty states as one of his aims "to create a new Belfast theatrical speak," and, indeed, the strongest suit of Mojo Mickybo is its use of colorful local argot, musical and scabrous at once — and all the more arresting exuding from the mouths of babes. (Don’t worry, there’s a glossary in the program.) The slangy profanity of Mojo, the Protestant from "up the road," and Mickybo, the Catholic from "over the bridge," would hardly make it into a Disney movie. Yet the boys are innocents. When not harassing an old guy referred to as "Barney Rip the Balls" or playing threat-and-quake with Fuckface, they’re skipping rocks across the water like Huck Finn, spitting from the cinema balcony, building a hut in the Timbers, or naively badgering the ’rents — who include Mickybo’s teetering-at-the-bar dad (skillfully suggested by ace simulated-drunk Meleady) and Mojo’s depressive mom. The friends are like characters in Oliver Twist, with additional dialogue by David Mamet translated into Belfast-ese by McCafferty.

On a simple, multilevel set by J. Michael Griggs that includes a spongy dirt park and a platform from which the boys re-create a Butch-and-Sundance escape into a river, director Carmel O’Reilly manages to both suggest and contain the endless exuberance of a couple of agitated, exploring 10-year-olds. Meleady and Hamell cannot entirely escape the built-in cuteness of adults playing children. But they turn in believably agitated performances as the boys, bouncing on imaginary horseback like pounding pistons. They also turn on a dime among the adult characters, including a knowing pair called "the smoking women" and a bus driver who takes Mojo and Mickybo to Newcastle, County Down, masquerading as Bolivia, for the afternoon. They return to predictable, sectarian tragedy, which puts a sad, inevitable end to both their bleak Eden and McCafferty’s live-action buddy movie.

Issue Date: April 9 - 15, 2004
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