By Lucy Komisar
Dan Gordon‘s bittersweet memoir about a Belfast shipyard comes alive through the stunning performances of Gordon and Michael Condron as two pals and workers, Davy and Geordie.
Gordon and Condron also create numerous other characters, laborers and bosses, in a play inspired by Gordon‘s father‘s years after World War II building ships at the huge Harland and Wolff plant.
The very fine production is by Britain’s Happenstance Theatre Company as part of the 59E59 Theaters Brits Off Broadway series.
The actors appear in a set of red scaffolding pipes and platforms, and they climb and move around among them, persuading us they are workshops and offices and high construction perches. They switch mood and character almost effortlessly, sometimes by simply doffing a hat.
The two wax poetic about the drama and hardships of the work.
Geordie: “Rain soaked mornings – cold and dark –
Davy: Freezing in the winter and blistering in the summer –
Geordie: Building boats from the bottom up – from the outside in
and the inside out –
Davy: And all the time it sits there breathing and smoking and
wheezing and growing and droning and humming – a city
inside a city – waiting – “
We learn about the river, the harbor, the port. We hear the history of the deepening of the channel in the 1800s. The backdrop is huge schematic drawing of the plant that was best known for having built the Titanic.
It was a tough life. Young boys were apprenticed –indentured. The boss tells Davy, “These are your indentures – it‘s a contract between you and Harland and Wolff and its binding.” The boys wouldn‘t leave.
The workers loved the yard and were proud of the ships they built, proud of their knowledge of the tools and the processes.
Davy explains: “And right at the heart of it were the lathes and turning machines – the band saws and rip saws – thicknessing machines and stores – piles of sawdust and piles of beautiful timber – Hardwood and Softwoods – American oak, beech, ash, maple, cherry, holly, boxwood, teak, Filipino mahogany, African ebony – pitch pine – yellow pine – spruce –“
The work is difficult and sometime dangerous. The story includes dramatic moments that end in tragedy.
And even those who survived hardly got a boss’s golden parachute. Speaking of a retiree, Davy says, “And when the Boat Factory‘s squeezed him for half a century they‘ll give him some sausage rolls and a clock and picture for his wall and they‘ll send him to sit with ˜the wife‘ in ˜the caravan‘ in Ballywhiskin and he‘ll look out at sea the turn up his hearing aids and try to remember what the waves sounds like.”
This realistic love story about work and sorrow and camaraderie is a gorgeous play.
“The Boat Factory.” Written by Dan Gordon. Directed by Philip Crawford. Happenstance Theatre Company at 59E59 Theatre, 59 E. 59 Street, New York City. 212.279.4200. Opened June 9, 2013; closes June 30, 2013. 6/27/13.