'It is what it is': finding a path through the fog of men's mental health

Saggy and shuffling, his dressing gown flapping over a middle-aged spread, Malachy is in garrulous confessional mode. His sofa has become an analyst’s couch. This is to be his final reckoning, we realise. Depression has taken a firm hold.

Simon O’Gorman brings rueful charm to the role of this solitary man in Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful (★★★★☆). It is one of two solo works about male mental health, presented as companion pieces on an extensive cross-border tour of Ireland by Belfast’s Prime Cut Productions, who had a hit in 2016 with Stacey Gregg’s Scorch, in which a teenager grappled with gender identity.

“How did I get here?” is the driving question in both shows, as men attempt to find their way through a fog of confusion. Designer Ciaran Bagnall’s bold visuals combine with precisely calibrated sound and movement to create a coherent double bill in which the two central performances shine.

Steadily working his way through bottles of red wine, Malachy looks back with ironic humour over his life as a “beta male”. As a man who drifted, he watched other men and the women in his life move on, past him, full of plans and ambitions. He didn’t choose to be born, he says; his school years just happened and his decision to go to university was something he did to please his parents.

Directed by Rhiann Jeffrey, O’Gorman spins defensive one-liners with the timing of a standup comic, later bringing poignant recognition to the inevitability of loss as the years pass. Gradually, the reasons emerge for Malachy’s present state of mind, in a script by John Patrick Higgins that, while heartfelt, seems overstretched at 55 minutes.

Fractured thoughts … Ryan McParland in East Belfast Boy. Photograph: Ciaran Bagnall

With its abstract setting of a metallic panelled backdrop and stripped wooden floor, Malachy’s room could be in any city anywhere. This is an initial contrast with the second show in the double bill, East Belfast Boy (★★★★☆). This high-energy stream of consciousness was developed by Belfast playwright and film-maker Fintan Brady from community workshops with young men in the east inner-city. Conceived as a spoken-word poem, performed by Ryan McParland to the pulsing rhythms of hip-hop, this production relies as much on choreographer Oona Doherty’s brilliantly jagged scissor moves and DJ Phil Kieran’s soundtrack as it does on Brady’s text.

Initially appearing brash and aggressive, 21-year-old Davy reveals his vulnerability and confusion in bursts, never being able to pin down what he wants. Only in flow, on a drug high while clubbing or playing video games, can he glimpse “the shape of it”, and find some clarity amid confusion.

Director Emma Jordan and lighting designer Sarah Jane Shiels create a fragmented form to match Davy’s semi-articulate phrases, and the effect is powerful and intense.

Unemployed, anxious and an insomniac, Davy is a husband and father despite having never consciously chosen either of these things. Reacting to peer pressure, he proposed to his girlfriend of six years without really meaning it. “It is what it is,” has become one of his refrains, and in this there are echoes of Malachy’s predicament: the recognition that he has always allowed others to dictate his life. Whether that realisation can change anything is the question left hanging in the air.

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