Gunshots explode, feet pound, a man bursts into a Belfast shop. Suddenly sweet Sheila, swollen with her fifth child, is anxiously smuggling an IRA bomb in a box of cream buns past a British soldier. The moment is horrific—and hilarious.
In scene after scene of Belfast Blues, an autobiographical one-woman show, Geraldine Hughes captures the humor and pathos in everyday Northern Ireland life during the worst of the Troubles. Transforming herself into nearly two dozen characters, she introduces us to family, friends, and neighbors in the notorious Divis Flats Catholic ghetto. As the British internment of political prisoners takes hold and bricks fly, Geraldine preens in her frilly communion dress, helps her ma run an illegal shop in their flat, hides from riots in a closet, and lands a part in an American director’s film about poor Catholic and Protestant children.
A skilled mimic and caricaturist, Hughes sketches her characters with a few broad strokes. Her Da struts, smoothing his hair back with grease; the frenetic shopkeeper Eddie compulsively blinks and wrings his hands. She also conjures jeering kids, frightened Brit soldiers, and a hoity-toity housing inspector with accuracy and brio. In the background, set and lighting designer Jonathan Christman’s grainy black-and-white projections of 1970s and ’80s Belfast and sound designer Jonathan Snipes’s nerve-shattering eruptions of street violence lend chilling reality to her vignettes.
Past the midpoint of this 85-minute piece, the dramatic tension slackens. But Hughes’s affection for her characters and her buoyancy as a performer carry us along with her. Though headlines flash the raw historical facts on a backdrop, it is Hughes’s wee Geraldine, reverently licking her precious ice cream, who illuminates the truth of children in war.