Black comedy Borderland 'just like Derry Girls only with better accents'

As a new black comedy on the Peace Process opens in Belfast, actors Gerard McCabe and Michael Condron tell Gail Bell why it's always good to laugh at the absurdity of life

Michael Condron and Gerard McCabe who appear in the play Borderland in Belfast's Waterfront Hall this weekend Picture: Mal McCann
Gail Bell

A SHARP black comedy with an even sharper dialogue is how Belfast actors Gerard McCabe and Michael Condron describe their latest piece of theatre, Borderland, which receives its Irish premier tomorrow.

Written by Andrew Doyle, co-writer of internet sensation Jonathan Pie and parody show, Graeme of Thrones, the play brings the two talented Belfast actors together as dodgy delivery men whose work is, unfortunately, drying up due to the peace process.

With the duo appearing on stage as bickering brothers Sean (McCabe) and Ciaran (Condron), the play – which marks the launch of the new Soda Bread theatre company – takes a wry look at how two men are, in a way, both victims of time and place and uncertain about the brave new landscape opening up in front of them.

First produced in Scotland 12 years ago by now-defunct Scottish theatre group 7:84, the script earned rave reviews and was variously described as a "sharp domestic black comedy", a play with "a touch of mythology" and "political theatre with an exciting metaphorical edge".

Now, the actors are excited to see what Northern Ireland audiences will make of it all when Borderland makes its debut at the Waterfront Hall this Friday and Saturday.

The play is set in Derry, the brothers from the Bogside. Fragile Ciaran and would-be republican hardman Sean deliver mysterious packages for a living, without ever really knowing what's inside.

They're a bit of an "odd couple", according to Condron, who acts as the less militant of the two, eager to call time on the way things were, but without the blessing of his brother.

"The comedy comes from our contrasting outlook on life and the banter between our characters," he explains. "Despite the differences, though, we have fun and the message is that you can disagree and still get on with each other."

For McCabe, better known for his slapstick comedy during panto season at Belfast's Grand Opera House, Borderland challenges as well as entertains – and also holds important references, he believes, "for where we stand as a society today".

"The writing is great and the comedy is definitely black," he says. "We can't give much away, but while making our final delivery for our paymasters, we are tempted to open the package – which, we have been assured, does not contain bombs or drugs. But this box has airholes and is moving, so we just have to take a peek..."

Both fiercely defensive of the arts in Northern Ireland, McCabe, who began his career in youth theatre with the Rainbow Factory of Performing Arts, and Condron, who started out with the Kabosh Theatre Company, are concerned that current cuts will spell the beginning of the end for much quality theatre across the north.

"We are blessed with a strong and vibrant arts sector, but the reality is that some theatre companies will go bust with cuts of up to 15 per cent in project grants," McCabe says. "The creative industries are booming, but theatre is at the heart of those creative industries and it is a worry for actors like us who want to work here and not take off to Dublin, London or the US."

Having said that, both actors have travelled widely in pursuit of their art, with Condron even having the means to fly himself to jobs abroad, after gaining his private pilot's licence several years ago.

Flying is something he still fits in, between acting jobs, which have, luckily, kept him mostly grounded ever since graduating from Ulster University at Coleraine with a Degree in Theatre Studies some 20 years ago.

Starring in productions as diverse as hit television series, Game of Thrones, to critically acclaimed parody Graeme of Thrones (which travelled from London's West End to the US and Australia) and Dan Gordon's two-man play The Boat Factory, Condron likes to flex his acting muscles in different directions – in his last role, he was controversial Pastor O'Hare in Marie Jones's Sinners at the Lyric.

Next up is a new BBC NI "Brexit-orientated" comedy Soft Border Patrol and, although sworn to secrecy, he says great merriment ensues when a fish is caught at a fictional border location, prompting much debate over whether it is a European or British specimen.

McCabe – who once won a competition to work as a BBC children's presenter – is also happiest when working on home soil, although his career has also taken him beyond borders, fictional or otherwise, including a notatable stint on American broadcaster CBS's Touched by an Angel, filmed in the US alongside Derry actress Roma Downey.

"Whatever we do and wherever we go, this is our home and we are proud of the theatre industry here," he says. "It is always good to be in front of a home audience and be able to laugh at ourselves and the absurdity of life sometimes. In Borderland, we are Derry boys and we take a hand out of ourselves, just like Derry Girls – only with better accents."

:: Borderland, Waterfront Hall, January 19 and 20; tickets at 028 9033 4455, and at the Ulster Hall box office.

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