A Better Boy
by John Wilson Foster
Directed by John Wilson Foster & Ian McElhinney.
One hundred and two years after its maiden voyage, the Titanic still remains an icon of Northern Irish culture. But when one considers the fact that this ship sailed from Southampton, and sank in the North Atlantic Ocean, it begs the question; what makes her predominantly Northern Irish? The answer is simple; it is the men who built her.
William James Pirrie was chairman of Harland and Wolff shipyard during the construction of the three White Star luxury passenger liners; The Olympic, Britannic and Titanic. Pirrie’s nephew, Thomas Andrews, was chief naval architect at the time and was given the task of realising his uncles vast vision, unfortunately, Tommie tragically perished on the maiden voyage of his final creation.
Written by Belfast born critic and academic John Wilson Foster, A Better Boy is a compact fifty five minute dramatic monologue with a focus on historical accuracy and context. It is 1917 and in the smoking room of Witley Park country manor an interview is being conducted, William Pirrie intends to present his shipyard as defiant in the face of difficulty; but how far can he recollect the life and work of his nephew before he becomes emotionally involved with this exercise in positive publicity?
Pirrie (Ian McElhinney) recalls his memories of Tommie, and recounts the planning, context and construction of the Titanic; a ship whose name he cannot even bring himself to speak aloud throughout the entirety of the play. Steeped in historical context, the opening of A Better Boy feels like an elegant and unintentional history lesson. The vast amount of factual information imparted on the audience should feel awkward, but the anecdotal and delicate craft of the writing ensures that it doesn’t.
McElhinney’s well-spoken performance is a master class in understatement and subtlety. In the beginning, the wealthy Irish industrialists lack of empathy when speaking about the maritime disaster seems severe. It quickly becomes evident, however, that Pirrie is a man desperate to move his shipyard forward, for the sake of both his financial and mental wellbeing. Throughout the course of the play, McElhinney makes a nicely measured transition between propaganda and personal grief.
An elegant reconstruction of Pirrie’s smoking room fills a large space sparingly with a few delicately ornate pieces of furniture. A projected dome skylight, with the blues and greens of the sea subtly added every so often, unobtrusively connects Pirrie’s country manor with the North Atlantic Ocean. The large set gives McElhinney space to move around in, however at times this isn’t an entirely positive aspect.
In around fifty five minutes, A Better Boy addresses issues of class, nationality, politics, art, grief and much more without seeming bloated or awkward. It is a play as much about Belfast, and the shipyard, as it is about the RMS Titanic, highlighting the impact this ship had on the city and the people involved in her construction. A Better Boy is a lovingly crafted and condensed retelling of the Titanic tragedy from a refreshingly different angle.