‘Greater Belfast’ is an evocation in sound, both musical and vocal, of the estrangement and affection a city can produce, especially amongst its exiles.
Matt Regan’s ambivalent love-letter to the city of his birth never dodges the issues associated with it, but prefers to explore it through the eyes (and more especially the ears) of the generations who have lived the greater part of their lives in Peace-Process Belfast rather than through its times of Troubles.
It’s the sounds of the city, or more specifically the sounds the city has produced that figure here, and rightly so, for this is not only the ‘Titanic Town’, but also that of the Undertones, Van Morrison and a musical culture that transcended thirty years of tragedy to produce some of the most distinctive and defining popular music of the time.
Regan is extremely well served by the Cairn String Quartet, whose classical training and musicianship reconfigure familiar tunes in delightfully unexpected ways. Theirs is playing of a very high order indeed, their ability not to intrude over Regan’s spoken narrative yet enhance it is at times quite simply breathtaking.
For those of us who know the city even slightly, ‘Greater Belfast’ ought to be unalloyed joy, a creation Regan builds from sleech – the silty deposits of the long-buried Farset that gives the city its name. Sleech pervades ‘Greater Belfast’, snaking its way through Regan’s narrative in insidious ways.
The ‘millies’ are never far from Regan’s thoughts either, the females mill workers whose toils helped build the city quite as much as their male counterparts in the shipyards.
Yet if Regan has an intimacy with his home city, there’s also a sense of alienation here. He fusses about his accent, but the worry seems one more deeply buried, as the weight of recent history hangs heavy on him.
This, perhaps, is an unavoidable experience for those of Regan’s generation, caught between a past that is inescapable and a present that continues to be contested. These themes among others propel us on waves of wonderfully expressive music through vividly lived experience toward a quite stunning finale. Belfast has rarely had such interpretation as Regan and his fellow performers bring to this piece.
Times: August 4-28 (not 8, 15, 22) times vary - see Fringe programme for details. £13.50 (£8.50)