July 12, 2024

How Many Miles to Babylon? at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast

*Being married to a technician may have affected my opinion when writing this review.

When the Director Philip Wilson came out on stage before the show to say that the mechanics were playing up, my heart sank. Pointing out possible issues and highlighting the technical hitches unfairly distracts the audience away from the story. From the onset all I could concentrate on was watching the Revolve, counting the number of times the Stage Manager had to push it manually, and feel sorry for the actors. At times they were out of the light, distracted by the set and having to insert pauses while waiting for the Revolve to put them in the correct place.

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While technical problems happen, and reliance on equipment is certainly a difficulty in theatre production, I felt that it was all a little selfish on the part of the Creative Team. The Revolve of the stage, even if it had worked seamlessly, added nothing to the overall atmosphere of the production and seemed to me to be an unfair burden to have placed on both the actors and crew.

Despite being distracted however, How Many Miles to Babylon? is a wise tale, one of friendship, bravery and strength of character.  Alec Moore (Anthony Delaney), a boy of the Big House in Wicklow is brought up by parents who have lots of money and not much love.  The first half of the play concentrates on the home life of Alec, his overbearing mother played by a convincing Catherine Cusack and indifferent father (Michael James Ford).  The lighting is cold and ghostly, accenting the formality of Alec’s life in the Big House.

His illicit forays out to meet his only friend, the village boy Jerry Crowe, played by the ever watchable Ryan McParland, are filled with simplicity and laughter. They have in common their love of horses and the swans of the Big House. Their differences are noted; Jerry does not ride like a gentleman, he hasn’t read the classics, he has difficulty with his homework. But none of these matter. Jerry is warm and funny, and despite not knowing the ‘proper’ way to do things, he is surrounded by a loving family and friends, and a knowledge of politics and current affairs.

Alec is pushed to enlist by his mother because it is his duty. When he says he doesn’t want to and doesn’t understand what the war is about she calls him a coward.  Jerry enlists in order to get some cash, another pay-check will make his family life much easier. It is when the boys decide to enlist that their differences are acknowledged. Jerry knows that Alec will become an Officer and will be expected to lead men like Jerry.
The second half of the play takes place in the trenches.  While the use of the Revolve makes more sense in this half, it still does not add enough to the play to merit reliance on it.  I was disappointed by the set which looked cheap and thought that smoke and lighting could have been used to much better effect. The fact that the boys were at the Front, while obvious in the script, was not mirrored by the atmosphere created.

We see Alec struggle with his Officer rank and with his inability to publicly continue his friendship with Jerry. Whether talking to Major Glendinning or fellow Officer Bennett, Jerry is always at the forefront of his mind. Their meetings are punctuated with laughter and whiskey, horse riding and genuine affection for each other.

The differences in their upbringing are clear from the letters each of them receive from home and their reactions to them. While Jerry sets off on a labour of love for his mother, Alec sets off on a labour of love for Jerry and as the story plays out, we are reminded that this is not a complex story of war, but a simple one of courage and friendship.


by Karen O’Rawe @classygenes


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