Monday, 26 December 2011


Steve Balshaw reviews
Strawberry Jack: A Tale from Paradise Heights  
***** Five Stars

Written & Directed by Joe O'Byrne
Christmas seems to be a time of year for heartwarming tales of forgiveness, redemption and renewal, of the bad made good, the broken healed, the darkness made a little lighter.

So when Joe O’Byrne advertises STRAWBERRY JACK as “A Christmas Tale” there’s a certain expectation as to what it will be about. And the set up plays into, and plays UP to those expectations. This is the tale of Jack Grundy, “Strawberry Jack”, a brutalised, burn-scarred bouncer at the Ace of Spades Nightclub. Jack is a bad man, who has done some very bad things, for an even badder man - Frank Morgan, the psychopathic crime kingpin of Paradise Heights. But lately he’s started to lose it a little. His bottle is gone. His friend and colleague, Deaf Freddie is covering for him as best he can, but the other doormen are starting to suspect something - particularly that cocky little prick Dave.

 Matthew Ganley (DAVE) Strawberry Jack

Bad enough to be a bad man whose “baditude” has gone for a burton, when there are challengers to your crown all around, but there’s a further complication. A far worse complication. A few nights ago, Jack saved Mandy, one of the bar girls, from being raped. Beat her attacker half to death, left him in a coma. No more than the bastard deserved, far as Jack’s concerned. Only problem is, the would be rapist happens to be the brother of local gangland up-and-comer Jimmy Gargan. And Gargan’s just looking for an excuse to move on Frank Morgan’s empire. First of all, though, he’s put the word out. A £5K bounty on anyone who gives up the person who hospitalised his brother.

So far, so noir. This is a classic tale of a hard man trying to break free, but trapped by his environment, the jaws and claws of which are about to close on him forever. Jack’s bottle’s too far gone for him to consider fighting back, and he cannot run. He has commitments; he has dependents. There’s his Uncle Mel, the man who raised him, who protected him from his own brute of a father, his mind now lost to Alzeimer’s and despair, veering between bitter resentment of every perceived slight and childlike helplessness. And there’s Mandy, who Jack wants to help, who he finds himself drawn to - a chance perhaps for a little beauty, maybe even for love, in his bleak, brutal life.

 David Edward Robertson (DEAF FREDDIE) and Ian Curley (STRAWBERRY JACK)

Jack copes as men of his nature always do. He drinks. He gets off his face on pills. He broods, and rails against the world. He breaks into a church on Christmas Eve, and he rails against god. And there he meets a mysterious woman. She is the ghosts of all his Christmases past, she’s Clarence the Angel trying to earn his wings. She offers him a chance for redemption, if he can just turn his back on the life he has thus far led. For a moment, we can almost  hear A Christmas Carol. It looks as though it really IS A Wonderful Life, even in Paradise Heights…

But there’s the rub. This is, after all, Paradise Heights. And Jack is who he is. He seeks redemption, but he desires revenge. Whatever the cost to his soul…

Characterisation is pin-sharp. Ian Curley never plays for sympathy as Jack - this is a hard, ruthless man, but one who is coming unravelled. In his interplay with others, we see his humanity revealed, - be it in his sparring with his fellow doorman Deaf Freddie (a deft and laconic turn from David Edward Robinson), in his awkward, uneasy attempts to define his relationship with Mandy (a lovely study in hardbitten vulnerability from Alice Brockway), and above all in the heartbreaking relationship with his broken and confused father figure, Mel, played with lovely warmth, humour, and baffled vulnerability by O’Byrne himself (O’Byrne demonstrates his versatility by also putting in a cameo as the vicious human pitbull Jimmy Gargan). Completing the cast, Matthew Ganley’s craven gobshite Dave is a masterful depiction of swaggering blowhardism, while Jo Kirkham scores double as Dave’s snide, avaricious girlfriend, and as the woman who offers that fleeting chance of redemption. 

Strawberry Jack and SHIRLEY (Jo Kirkham) 

The dialogue is pungently, darkly witty, shot through with unforced pathos and flashes of real poetry, in keeping with the blend of naturalism, Brechtian theatre craft and magic realism that define the piece as a whole. O’Byrne is a master of the unexpected pay off to a recurring motif, and while he does not flinch from onstage violence, he is also aware of the effectiveness of understatement - one of the most bone-chilling moments here is provided by Mandy casually discussing something she just witnessed at work, which, whether she knows it or not, is somebody being led off to their probable death. Did I mention there’s even a song? Written by O’Byrne and the Tangled Man, and performed by the inimitable Stella Grundy, this serves as an atmospheric counterpoint to the action, as well as being a taster for the forthcoming TORCH.

STRAWBERRY JACK finds Joe O’Byrne at the top of his (considerable) game, playing on audience expectations of both the traditional sentimental Christmas tale, and the cynical noir crime drama. In one, the girl can offer redemption, in the other, she will invariably get you killed. With a master storyteller’s skill, O’Byrne sets up all of the mechanisms that we know will damn and destroy his protagonist, then puts them into motion. The audience can only watch, hoping that, just this once, their fears will be misplaced. That tragedy will be averted. After all, it’s Christmas…

Alice Brockway (MANDY) and Ian Curley (STRAWBERRY JACK)

But it’s also Paradise Heights. And even Charles Dickens wouldn’t go there without someone riding shotgun.

This is a self-contained piece, but, as always, with the Tales from Paradise Heights, there are hints of the larger tapestry, clues to stories happening elsewhere, answers to questions raised in other works in the sequence, that will appeal to those of us who have been following the Cycle for a while. TORCH, is coming soon. Anyone remotely interested in theatre, in storytelling in general, should get ready to check it out.

Steve Balshaw
Director, Salford Film Festival

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Strawberry Jack

Strawberry Jack
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