Big Man, Theatre Review, Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, October 28, 2022

By Conor O’Neill

From the pen of writer Paul McVeigh and written during the depression of lockdown – I imagine we’ll be seeing a lot of shows written under that black cloud over the next few years – comes Big Man, a story of love, hope, loss and how these emotions are universal to us all.

Part of 2022’s Belfast International Arts Festival, Big Man follows the story of Mark, a man of a ‘certain age’ who has made his fortune in London only to return to the small-town ethos of his native Belfast. I expected actor Tony Flynn to be playing multiple roles switching from character to character on a tuppence as so many one-person plays are written. But no, the story is told solely through the eyes of our protagonist as McVeigh charts the rise and fall of one gay man’s story of love at first sight.

The stage and setting are strange in itself. The raised stage sits like an island surrounded on three sides by the audience. To the rear of the stage a large black hole, a prop used often as a place of solace, destitution and a place to reflect. Set and costume designer Tracey Lindsay states in the programme that cracks in the stage were put there to represent the palm print of the individual, and McVeigh’s writing relies heavily on the hands. Whether the be writing with the finger ‘I love you’ on another’s palm or a quick grope in the back of an unsuspecting taxi-driver’s cab, the intimacy of the hands are never far from mind.

The story arc is a familiar one but McVeigh’s writing, its currency of being saw through the eyes of a gay man, something strange in the eyes of the straight world it has to occur in, the directing talent of Patrick J O’Reilly and the acting of the sublime Tony Flynn keeps it far from formulaic. After meeting on a dating app, Mark and the man half his age and only referred to as ‘Himself’, agree to meet in the Spaniard bar. On first sight our protagonist recalls “the hairs on my neck stood up like thousands of little erections.” Mark is a man with a past, “most of my friends are dead, the rest are on drugs” he reflects while ‘Himself’ has youth on his side and has never been in that crazy little thing called ‘love”.

Belfast city itself could arguably be put down as the third character in the play. Any watcher familiar with the city with feel at ease with the writing of McVeigh and acting of Flynn carries us along Union Street into the Kremlin, past Carlisle Circus and up the Crumlin Road. It is this intimacy and descriptive writing and delivery that makes this piece of theatre seem all the more real and believable.

The play has the fingerprints of director O’Reilly all over it. From the lighting by James McFettridge to the sound by Stuart Robinson all is directed with that signature O’Reilly stamp. One that has proven successful since his ‘arrival’ in 2010.

The initial flush of lust soon falls into the comfortable clothes of love and then as quickly as it arrived, it’s lost. To me, though the beginning was high tempo and full of hope, it’s the fall of the shooting star that impacted me the most. The shoulda, coulda, woulda in the post-mortem that shows the vulnerability of anyone willing to place themselves in the firing range of love. You’ll laugh with Flynn, you’ll dance with him, but in the final 15 minutes you’ll want to cry with him. “I was his first, he’ll be my last.” says Flynn, like some many have done and reneged on before.

Big Man plays at the Lyric’s Naughton Theatre up to and including November 13, 2022. For booking details and times visit http://www.lyrictheatre.co.uk or simply phone the box office on 02890 381081.

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