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Brokentalkers play The Blue Boy gives voice to Irish survivors of institutional abuse

The Blue Boy has toured theatres across Europe since 2011 and now the piece – which combines choreography, music, film and testimonies – is on its way to Belfast. Co-director Gary Keegan tells Brian Campbell why this story about survivors of abuse in Catholic care institutions had to be told.

The Blue Boy deals with the experiences of those who were incarcerated as children in Catholic residential care institutions

BROKENTALKERS have been described as one of Ireland’s most fearless and path-breaking theatre companies and their acclaimed play The Blue Boy – itself labelled `devastating’, 'haunting’, 'urgent and vital’ – makes its Belfast bow this weekend.

The production deals with the shocking experiences of men and women who were incarcerated as children in Catholic residential care institutions.

It employs striking choreography with live music, multi-media and film, alongside recorded testimony from survivors of abuse.

Gary Keegan and Feidlim Cannon of Brokentalkers direct the piece, while Keegan also acts as narrator. He introduces The Blue Boy to the audience by recalling how his grandfather, an undertaker, was traumatised after seeing mysterious bruises on the bodies of children who had been in the care of the Christian Brothers-run Artane Industrial School in Dublin – a school singled out in the Irish government’s 2009 Ryan Commission into child abuse for its record of physical and sexual abuse.

“I grew up beside the school [which closed in 1969] and my granddad had occasion to go there when he worked as an undertaker,” says Keegan.

“When I was born I was adopted and the number of adoptions that took place in Ireland as this sort of solution to the 'problem’ of unmarried mothers is huge.

“My own experience pales in comparison to that of others, but my life was affected by the government policy of supporting adoption rather than supporting unmarried mothers. Another theme of the work is the [Catholic] Church’s influence on state policy.”

The Blue Boy premiered in Dublin in 2011 and has been performed across Europe and is now in the midst of an Irish tour that takes it to Belfast on Saturday.

As both Keegan and co-director Cannon interviewed survivors of abuse, he admits it was a harrowing piece to research and put on stage.

“It took 18 months to make and there were a lot of upsetting moments. I’d recently become a dad at the time, so I felt it particularly strongly,” he says.

“I was looking after my baby and then was delving into the darkest kind of material, so part of me was thinking 'I’m making a big mistake here’.

“But I feel it’s an important piece and an important document. It keeps the story alive, because as a nation we’re not ready to start memorialising this issue. There’s a lot of legislation and compensation and redress that still have to happen.”

One horrifying bit of information relayed in the play is that children forced to manufacture rosary beads were so plagued by hunger that they would eat the beads.

“It’s grotesque. You couldn’t make that up,” says Keegan.

“I sat across from a woman in Dublin in 2010 and she told me that story and I found it extremely hard not to break down in tears. Those children were so ill-treated that they had to resort to that.”

While Keegan narrates, the performers don’t speak. The masks they wear are meant to “depersonalise” them, explains the co-director.

“It’s because of the stories they are communicating, because those young people were incarcerated and dehumanised and degraded.”

The Blue Boy – whose cast features Lucy Andrews, Dylan Coburn Gray, Eddie Kay, Jessica Kennedy and Megan Kennedy – has enjoyed great reviews.

“This show is a bit of a freak of nature in that it’s had such a long life,” says Keegan.

”It’s toured internationally since 2012. We toured all over Europe and picked up the 'grand prix’ prize at a festival in Torun in Poland. Taking it to North America and Australia is still on the bucket list.”

He says the play has created such a stir in all the countries it has gone to because the issue of abuse is “not exclusively an Irish or a Catholic problem”.

“We’ve taken it to places like Germany and Iceland and everywhere we go, people say 'We have this here too’. And I know up in the north there’s been reports and scandals around institutions.

“Whether we like it or not, we’re all written into this story and we have a responsibility to acknowledge it. People are really affected by this piece.”

The Blue Boy comes to The Lyric in Belfast on Saturday at 8pm. For tickets (£15), visit lyrictheatre.co.uk or call 028 9038 1081. The play contains material that some might find disturbing

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