Smilin’ Through

by Billy Cowan
Drill Hall, London

As the premier venue for LGBT performances in London with an intimate acting area and friendly crowd, the Drill Hall promises an edgy and exciting night out. This month, it presents Smilin’ Through by Billy Cowan, winner of the 2003 Writing Out award for Best New Gay/Lesbian Play, as part of a series of works to commemorate its 30th anniversary.

Set in Belfast in 1998, Smilin’ Through is a funny and heartwarming tale of a dysfunctional Irish family coming to terms with each other. Peggy Morrow (Gillian Hanna) has long terrorized her son and husband with her domineering ways, drunken revelry and forceful personality.  Used to running her working-class home with an iron feather-duster, she gets the biggest shock of her life when her son Kyle (Declan Harvey) announces that he is gay and that he wishes to move in with his boyfriend. A devout Protestant, the thought is appalling to Peggy and she immediately asks Kyle to leave the house. Kyle however decides otherwise, stubbornly locking himself in his room and declaring to be on hunger strike until she comes to terms with who he is.

Harvey and Hanna play off each other well and maintain a level of physical comedy that is enjoyable to watch. Neil Irish’s split-level set, cluttered with homely bric-a-brac and situated just feet away from the audience, gives it a feeling of intimacy and draws one into the family drama as it unfolds.

Amongst the supporting cast, there are particularly entertaining turns by Colm Gormley as an ineffectual police officer and Billy Boyle as an effeminate Cardinal in resplendent purple robes who arrives to knock some religious sense into Kyle. Natalie Wilson’s directing is largely competent though a touch clumsy, the play tending to lapse into melodrama and being poorly paced in parts. 

While downright cheesy at times, Cowan’s script is well-layered and evokes an equal measure of laughter and pathos. Peggy’s mulish and unyielding ways are slowly broken down over a series of surreal, musically-inspired dreams where she encounters her childhood singing idol Nelson Eddy who helps her to let go of her emotional baggage and to accept her son.  Kyle, for all his childish petulance, is revealed to have a strong resolve motivated by love for his mother and even puts his relationship with his boyfriend on hold to mend things with her.

Peggy’s narrow-mindedness and refusal to countenance her son’s homosexuality is intended to be a metaphor for the much larger issue of acceptance of minorities in society. The play itself is a poster for the difficulty of coming out to one’s family, a perennial concern of the gay community. However, considering the ubiquity of queer theatre that has sprouted up in recent years, one rather wishes that Cowan had a delivered a more eloquent plot with richer characterisation. Though socially relevant, his premise feels rather formulaic and operates like a vaguely amusing TV sitcom at best.  

Clichéd and bizarre in parts, Smilin’ Through is nonetheless a feel-good family drama and an amusing way to spend an evening off West-End.  If nothing else, it might just bring a smile to your face.  

The Crystalwords score: 6/10

*This review appeared in The Beaver, the LSE student newspaper (Issue 673).


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