The only ghosts in Basra Boy are those of young men blown up or soon to be, in a sandy country far from their rainy home. Running in rep with The Weir, Rosemary Jenkinson’s world-premiere one-man show recalls a lot of other one- or two-hander dramas to emerge from Ireland or Northern Ireland since the late ’90s—Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs, Abbie Spallen’s Pumpgirl—in its explosive speech and amphetamine-stoked tempo, as well as in its chain of incident. This is another account of the young folk getting high and getting into fights and trying to get laid, trying to escape boredom—trying to end up like something other than sad fellows hanging around the bar in The Weir. Josh Sticklin vibrates like a hopped-up hummingbird as Speedy, a kid who decides to make the army his ticket out of Belfast. His pal Stig (also Sticklin, of course) can’t believe he’s falling for the government’s line, enticed by the promise of adventure and a cash bonus.
Basra Boy has the bad luck of opening just a few weeks after the National Theatre of Scotland’s universally praised production of Black Watch dropped in for a week at Harman Hall. That show, too, examined how the war in Iraq squanders the gifts of young men drawn to military service by their craving to belong, but on a much larger canvas with a blockbuster budget. Basra Boy is a shot-on-a-Flip-cam indie by comparison—its set is the bar from The Weir with a graffiti-scrawled curtain draped over the walls—but it’s got some game. And Sticklin is a charmer, charismatic and tireless.
It isn’t energy he wants for; just clarity and precision. The undifferentiated tempo allows moments of narrative dissonance, always a risk when a single performer inhabits multiple characters. When he’s Stig and when he’s Speedy isn’t always readily apparent. His physical and verbal stamina are impressive—he’s basically running and yapping full-tilt for 70 minutes—but Basra Boy could use a moment or two of quietude for the audience to locate itself in the continuity of the story. Perhaps Sticklin and director Abigail Isaac may yet sort this out; I’m very keen to see how this piece evolves. At the very least, it’s a suitable companion for The Weir. What the wasted Speedy and the waning sods of McPherson’s tale have in common is their sharklike approach to self-documetation: If they stop talking, they die.