The Boat Factory, a two-hander from Northern Ireland currently playing as part of the Brits Off-Broadway festival, has a bit of a split personality. Its first half details the early life of the main character, Davy Gordon, and the way he becomes a worker in Belfast’s boatyards, along with their rich background. The boatyards date back to ancient times, and the two actors, Dan Gordon (who is also the playwright) and Michael Condron, embody a variety of characters to catalogue the major steps in Belfast’s glorious maritime history—it was at Harland and Wolff, the boat factory of the title, that the Titanic was built. Happenstance Theatre Company, from Belfast, even provides an impressive souvenir booklet about the factory.
The play draws on a tradition of British dramatic works (not to mention those of Shaw) about public issues involving the working classes, politics, and industry, such as John Arden’s Vandaleur’s Folly (1978) or David Hare’s The Permanent Way (2003). But in this case, Gordon’s recounting of the vessel-making visionaries and the growth of the industry comes across initially as rather dry and parochial for an American audience. It’s not just the unfamiliar words and accents (only minimally an issue), but the lists of ships, Belfast landmarks, and people whizzing by that make it hard to connect.
Gordon does his best to alleviate the unfamiliarity. For instance, the headlong race through history is handled with stream-of-consciousness and word association, and such passages have rhythms that sound like poetry. Davy: “The boats—the trade—we must act—Act—in Parliament—Irish acts—”
Davy: “Acts for cleansing the Ports of Galway, Sligo, Drogheda and Belfast—Clarendon Dock—Hugh Ritchie—John Ritchie—Alexander McLaine.”
Still, the amount of information thrown at the listener may make you feel you've been dropped into a novel by James Joyce. The actors play a lot of parts, sometimes switching to the same character back and forth. There’s not a really strong focus except for the complex narrative itself, making it hard to connect to one person for very long—even Davy, who’s played by Gordon alone.
The second half of Philip Crawford’s production, however, is almost a different play. In it, Gordon develops Davy’s friendship with a young man named Geordie, introduced in the first part, and their relationship provides a way to engage with the play more easily than in the first half. Although Condron plays Geordie, he’s also assigned the bulk of the other roles, including the comic ones. He’s especially good as Clifford, a mentally challenged young worker with a cherished tool belt. Although Clifford's job is secure because of nepotism, he is the butt of practical jokes and abuse from others. His nemesis is the big boss, Mr. Marshall (Gordon, fitting easily into the role of a heavy). After Davy becomes Clifford’s protector, he learns a crucial secret that Clifford knows about the boatyard.
But it’s the friendship of Geordie and Davy that anchors the second half, and the actors shine. Although a key element—Geordie’s love of Moby-Dick—is introduced rather late in the play, most of the writing is sure-footed. One might wish that Gordon hadn’t written a shoe salesman who is gay in quite so hackneyed a manner, although Condron brings it off, or that the poetic litanies about hammers, nails, saws, and chisels didn’t become so predictable; at the same time, the accumulation of details echoes the passages about whales and harpoons and gams in Melville’s great novel. They give the story a texture.
The set of scaffolding on both sides of the stage and a map of the Belfast shipyards that covers the upstage wall are simple but effective. (Graphic design is attributed to Andrew Campbell). It’s clear that the production is a labor of love and civic pride, and its two performers make a success of it.