JOYCE MCMILLAN on BLUE HEN at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 7.5.10
3 stars ***
FOLLOWING their huge success with the anti-sectarian comedy I’m No A Billy, He’s A Tim, the playwright Des Dillon and his co-director Scott Kyle have set out on a 22-date tour of Scotland with their new show Blue Hen. And if the capacity crowd at the Citizens’ is any guide, the show will find an enthusiastic fan-base wherever it goes, not least because it stars Charles Lawson, best known as Coronation Street’s Jim McDonald.
Which makes it all the more disappointing that Blue Hen is not half as well-made a play as I’m No A Billy. The story involves two long-term unemployed men, fortysomething John and his younger neighbour Pat, who are struggling to keep despair at bay, on a housing estate run by a ruthless drugs gang. Their tragi-comic idea is to start breeding hens in the back yard; and although the project ends in failure, it takes them on a journey that offers a faint chance of escape.
In working out his idea, though, Dillon faces two difficulties, both associated with the fact that there are now so few theatrical voices coming straight from the underbelly of British life. First, in order to achieve a strong comic effect, he often gives his characters dialogue that consists of little but a string of aggressive obscenities, in a way that hardly challenges facile stereotypes.
And the second is that although there is finally much more to the characters than that – they have their dreams and their griefs, and John has some education – Dillon really doesn’t know how to finish their story; the play dwindles into a long, repetitive, dimly-lit final scene that literally goes nowhere. At its best, though, Blue Hen represents a passionate grass-roots cry against the “holocaust of spirits and souls” that comes with mass unemployment; and at this critical moment in British politics, that warning could hardly be more timely, or more deeply felt.