"Wick" means something is rubbish; "wheeker" sounds like an emphatic form, but in fact means the opposite. Belfast children's slang of the 1970s was confusing when you were a Belfast child. Owen McCafferty doesn't digress into any disquisitions or explanations on this, or anything else, in Mojo-Mickybo, the play that made his name. He concentrates on the shared world and imperfect observations of a couple of lads circa 1970: playing on the streets, indulging their mutual cowboy obsession, trying to make sense of their family travails, and hanging out together, "thick as two small thieves".
Kabosh, the Belfast-based physical theatre company which commissioned the piece from McCafferty in 1998, is now retiring the production after five years, as many casts and over 200 performances, ending at the Lyric Studio Hammersmith. The compact Fergal McElherron and the slightly lankier Michael Condron between them tackle 17 parts in less than an hour, and director Karl Wallace keeps the little-kid acting from becoming excessive too often.
Because it's essential to the piece's power that we see matters primarily through the prism of boys' play, and only subsequently reinterpret them more seriously. First there is the matter of why Mojo's da goes out dancing without his ma, and why he leaves Mojo in an ice cream parlour all Saturday afternoon; that's obvious enough, and it is no surprise when the parents split up.
But the main point emerges far more gradually. Right at the start, we are told that Mojo is from "up the road" and Mickybo from "over the bridge". Only in the final minutes do we realise that this puts them in districts of differing religious persuasion. The Troubles impinge on the boys only as they come to do so on Northern Irish society in general at that particular historical moment. The brief, bleak coda emphasises that all these years later, communities have so polarised that such casual mixing could hardly ever happen now, whether with adults or children.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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