Review: Buttercup by Spanner in the Works

Jessica Harris watches a dark yet stirring play set against a darker background.

Set against the backdrop of the Troubles in Northern Ireland over the past four decades, you might have expected a sombre tone from Spanner in the Works’ latest production. And Buttercup did indeed take us to some dark places.

It dealt with the experience of girls and women living in West Belfast from the late 1970s onwards, in an environment where the threat of conflict and intimidation was never far away. As often as not, the main threat was from forces designed to keep the peace. And it tackled head-on the issue of suicide, particularly amongst young people, and even more so amongst young women. Northern Ireland has the highest suicide rates in the UK, and these rates have been rising sharply in recent years.

But Spanner in the Works is a company whose delivery style includes humour, dance and singing, and where the focus is on characters, in this case three best friends, Mary, Katie and Colleen. Buttercup invited us to laugh and to remember that, underneath all of the tragedy, life goes on.

The company’s three performers established a strong rapport with the audience from the outset. The juxtaposition of short scenes was pointed and effective: the performers moved seamlessly from young girls pogo-ing to punk or smooching to the Bee Gees, to recollections of the normality of sixteen year olds being locked up, to recounts of being married by twenty as commonplace.

The production divided into two parts – before and after the peace process. After the peace, we were taken into a world which now feels all too familiar, where cyber-bullying under the veil of anonymity breaks people and families. Since this historical divide was being used as the springboard for a key theme (has life got much better since the peace?), a more pronounced punctuation of the drama could have been used at this point to add to tension and significance.

Buttercup is a stirring piece of theatre, which also lends itself well to post-show discussions. Short and punchy, it’s well worth the price of a ticket.

Written and directed by Patricia Downey, Buttercup is part of the Bedlam Arts & Mental Health Festival which runs in venues across Birmingham until 21 November. Further information.