Review: Callings - An examination of what life was like for gay men and women in 1970s Northern Ireland

Christopher Grant (Jason) and Simon Sweeney (Tommy). Picture by Johnny Frazer
Christopher Grant (Jason) and Simon Sweeney (Tommy). Picture by Johnny Frazer

Callings - Naughton Studio, Lyric Theatre, Belfast

DOMINIC Montague’s new drama for Kabosh Theatre Company about the beginnings of the CaraFriend gay helpline isn’t one bit worthy. And that’s a compliment.

Directed by Paula McFetridge, this 70-minute examination of what life was like for gay men and women in 1970s Northern Ireland is important and touching. It has moments of genuine pathos such as the first kiss between Cuchulain (aka 'Tommy', conveyed with sensitivity by the brilliant Simon Sweeney) and Jason (the equally good Christopher Grant). The story of Brigid, a young lesbian with a crush on Jamie Lee Curtis, who finds it tough to even articulate or say the 'L-word' is also very moving.

There’s an untidy, believable set by Stuart Marshall and a mainly realistic structure which follows the induction of a new volunteer, Helen (convincing Paula Carson-Lewis).

In fact, Callings worked best when it dealt with feelings: with fear, oppression and burgeoning love, in other words, with the stories belonging to the CaraFriend clients. There was some clever staging in the play such as when we saw three men amorously engaged in the shadows at stage left as the two people manning the phones busied about their work. There was a clear metaphor here, about exclusion and having to exist outside the mainstream due to the punitive anti-gay laws of the period.

One of the good plot devices involved Tommy/Cuchulain’s pastor father, who with his mum encouraged their son to help with a Save Ulster from Sodomy demonstration.

He felt, understandably, it would be almost impossible to come out. “It would kill them.”

The only slightly clunky passage came mid-way through, as middle-aged Martin (Chris Robinson, playing against his normal charisma) spoke directly to the audience about the history of this helpline that became a lifeline. This was statement rather than dramatic suggestion and the material might have been conveyed in some other way.

Yet Callings made a near capacity audience in the Lyric’s Naughton Studio reflect on how far we have progressed and what it means to belong to the LGBTI+ community today.

This isn’t maybe in the same category as plays like Martin Sherman’s Bent or, more recently, Conor Mitchell’s superbly shouty opera Abomination: a DUP Opera, which is returning to the Lyric soon as part of its new season, but we’ll remember the humour and the tenderness.

There was a lovely moment in Brigid’s sweet account of dancing with her soon-to-be girlfriend and worrying over whether she’s bought the right wine.

There could be happy endings.

:: Callings runs tonight at the Lyric Theatre, then tours to Derry, Enniskillen, Dundalk, Coleraine and other towns until February 26. See kabosh.net for more information.