Irish World reviews archive

The Beautiful Game

Sticks and Stones

The Wexford Trilogy

As the Beast Sleeps

Wine in the Wilderness

Faith Healer

Further Than the Furthest Thing

Becoming Strangers

Kings of the Kilburn High Road

Luther

Port Authority

Midden

Money From America

Umoja

THE BEAUTIFUL GAME

A Musical by Ben Elton and Andrew Lloyd Webber

Some years ago a children’s novel of mine called The Lost City of Belfast was turned into a play and the child actors were drawn from the Shankill and the Falls and the play was put on in The Botanic Gardens in Belfast and then the children were bussed down to Dublin and stayed overnight in the Jobstown Community Centre with local families and then the next day (after their brilliant performance!) were bussed back up to Belfast again to the divided cultural ghettos where they live.

A lot happened during that border crossing; a performance of a play, but more importantly the confronting of shibboleths, testament and then the reality of life without shadows. Had everything been changed, utterly? Not a bit of it. All of us knew we probably wouldn’t meet again as the last child stepped off the bus. It had been an Utopian experience. But all of us were near to tears.

So with the plot of The Beautiful Game. It’s about an interdenominational football team at the beginning of The Troubles in Belfast; everybody gets on ok on the pitch but when this bus of time stops and the players get off, it becomes the stuff of Bobby Sands and Sammy Blair, two of the team members in real life and the subject of the documentary which inspired Andrew Lloyd Webber to think about writing a play about what happens after the sweet bird of youth flies into history. This musical, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Ben Elton, is the result of that transient inspiration.

Lots of gifted Irish writers have come to the UK and written plays about England usually poking fun at the social mores; R.B. Sheridan, Oliver Goldsmith, Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde to name but four! I can’t think of many English writers who have come to Ireland to make fun of us. I was therefore quite anxious to consider what Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton might see through their artistic gaze. I just hoped, having grown up there, they might get it at least half right.

My fears were groundless, the team has done a good job: there is nothing carpetbagging about this, it is a genuine attempt to depict society in Belfast in the seventies and they’ve even put it to music! It succeeds in doing what Bord Failte could never do and still can’t, sell Northern Ireland to an international audience, this play deserves to run and run.

The tunes are appealing, the choreography flawless; the accents are spot on, usually the most disappointing aspect of a Belfast play in London. The dialogue is as true as a bell, Ben Elton has shown real genius in getting into the true vernacular of Belfast.

The musical opens with a brilliant ballet of a football match and much of the first act is indeed about The Beautiful Game. These sequences do for Football whsat Ruud Gullit tried to do for newcastle United, make it sexy. And since I’ve mentioned sex, yes it is also about boys meeting girls and those budding relationships. There is lots of football, lots of booze but no surprisingly no sex, just snogging, that is made very clear; after all these are well brought-up (for the most part) Catholic girls and boys. One of them does say at one point however, “Why did I have to be born a Catholic in Belfast? All the world’s been shagging since the sixties but not here!” Are you kidding? But there are compensations, the craic is good and real friendships are formed.

But as the political shadows begin to gather, the civil rights marches, the British troops sent over initially to protect Catholics, the gradual cancer of disillusionment, re-education and ghettoization, the mood and the songs gets darker. In the second act there is a scene of kneecapping and there are also scenes in Long Kesh. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton has not shirked the reality of the seventies, yet they have produced a musical which is always watchable, often gripping, yet full of laughs – there are some really great lines – and the whole thing is imbued with that human warmth which is eponymous with Northern Irish people.

CRAIC: 10/10

VALUE FOR MONEY: 10/10

FINAL VERDICT: A truthful, heartbreaking depiction of a decade in Irish history when a terrible beauty was reborn.

World Premiere: Tuesday 26th Sept 2000
Cambridge Theatre, Earlham St. London WC2
Tickets £10 - £35. Box office 020 7 494 5120

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STICKS AND STONES

Shaun Traynor reviews a play by Englishman, Lance Nielson, which spans three decades of the Northern Irish conflict.

Lance Nielson has tackled public issues in the past, most notably Waiting for Hillsborough and Eleven Years down the River – The Marchioness Inquiry. So what is he offering now, a docudrama about Northern Ireland? No, it’s more than that, it is a genuine play on the epic scale.

TV documentaries like ENDGAME IN IRELAND are riveting because they are about those who wield power and they show how precarious judgement can be. STICKS AND STONES is the perfect antidote to such documentaries, it is a play about the ordinary people whose lives are affected by the decisions taken by those in power.

Lance Neilson’s great gift is that he can take a slice of painful history and put a human face on it.

IN STICKS AND STONES we see into the lives of Derry families from Bloody Sunday on and we see into the lives of the protagonists, of members of the parachute regiment who “did the business” there. We see it in a way we haven’t seen it before, we see it in a kind of fly-on-the-wall documentary where people are talking intimately, honestly, in the privacy of their own homes. We eavesdrop on tragedy and see people at a loss. It is a play about bereavement (as were Hillsborough and Marchioness) but it is so profoundly moving that we come out of the theatre not feeling guilt about looking in but inwardly blessed.

It is a very well put together play, it is carefully plotted, slow and sure in its delineation of character - we get to know these people really well - and care about them. On the one side we have the Derry father watching his family break up, splinter apart, as the province in which they live begins to crumble, on the other we have the black widow of one of the first British soldiers to be killed in Northern Ireland who, in her grief, finally writes to the Women’s Peace Movement to find out why, why, why her husband had to lose his life. In the final confrontation between her and the Derry father’s son who pulled the trigger on the night in question we have a scene in prospect which I waited for with real anxiety. I shan’t tell you what happened, go and see and I hope you come away as moved as I was by this serious and sincere piece of human drama.

On the night in question when the seventeen year old IRA recruit can hardly hold his rifle he is shaking so much, the IRA commander says to him, “It’s only a target you’re aiming at, it is not a person.” This was the crux of the play, Lance Neilson makes people out of stereotypes and gives us access to them.

Suzanne Davis played the black widow, Maurice Gleeson played the Derry father, they must, in my book, take the acting accolades. However a large ensemble cast had fine acting in depth. Richard Mazda gave a most convincing performance as the tyrannical father of soldier Ford and Steve Bowyer gave a developing performance as his brother which gave much to the structure of the play. The movement through the history of this English family locked in conflict between tradition and a modern view of life was one of the most interesting insights of the production. The theatre itself was a friendly and pleasant place to be and very easy to get to. All concerned with this Bridewell project can be proud of their night’s work.

The whole point of drama, maybe, is that it move the heart, purge the soul, illuminate the darker corners of the human condition, break down prejudice, not reinforce it. That’s what this play did. Having lived through “The Troubles” I wasn’t dying to see a another play about it all, but I’m glad I went, I just wish people like politicians would go and maybe as a result of seeing this play might try harder.

Details: Bridewell Theatre, Bride Lane, Blackfriars EC4. 11th July – 4th Aug 2001
Tickets £12/£8(concs). Box office 020 7936 3456

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THE WEXFORD TRILOGY

Billy Roche’s plays are resolutely set in Old Wexford, in the snooker halls and pubs and betting-shops of his youth, something of a timewarp. In an interview in this paper recently, the playwright explained what he thought of his plays. He said firstly that he thought of them as his children so therefore he didn’t prefer one to another, he did however elaborate on their characteristics.

He said he thought A HANDFUL OF STARS was “raw and exciting,” POOR BEAST IN THE RAIN was “highly crafted,” BELFRY was “focussed on concepts of time and memory.” With these words as my compass, I will begin my own critique of his trilogy of plays.

A HANDFUL OF STARS wasn’t all that raw or exciting, it was in fact rather passé. It’s about a rebel without a cause, a Jimmy Dean wannabe; it’s about a small time malcontent in a small and claustrophobic town who is considered by the townspeople to be “more trouble than he’s worth.” He plays pool in an ante-room pool room while the grown ups play snooker in the MEMBERS ONLY lounge which becomes a metaphor for the society which has rejected him and which he wants to trash. He does in the end. The performance by Peter McDonald as the bad boy is athletic and sexy and abounding with energy. Hugh O’Conor as Tony, his even younger sidekick, was the perfect foil. The last few tragic moments with Peter McDonald alone on the stage, finally falling apart were truly moving.

CRAIC 7/10

VALUE FOR MONEY 7/10

FINAL VERDICT The play leads on well to the others, which follow. We’re introduced to the characters and the settings in HANDFUL OF STARS and there is terrific resonance when POOR BEAST gets underway.

POOR BEAST IN THE RAIN is Billy Roche’s masterpiece, a beautifully crafted and emotionally charged play. The main character, Danger Doyle (played imperiously by Michael McElhatton) comes back from England to cause havoc amongst those he had left behind. The bookie, (in whose shop the action takes place) movingly played by Michael O’Hagan is the two times loser. His wife ran off with Danger ten years previously and now Danger has come back to claim the daughter who works in the shop. The bookie has a terrific “why me lord?” type speech in which he asks why, for a man who has done nothing wrong, other than just not go away, should there be such terrible retribution. Molly is the girl Danger left behind and to me this is a part to cherish. Rebecca Regan is magnificent as the sharp-tongued, “I see through you all” female observer of the male scene of the betting shop and the pub. She tells people exactly what they are and how they are perceived. In turn they tell her a thing or two, so the play is really about stripping away postures and pretences and getting to the painful core of small town life.

CRAIC 10/10

VALUE FOR MONEY 10/10

FINAL VERDICT Very, very, funny.

BELFRY could be called RING OUT WILD BELLS because it’s all about bats-in-the belfry bell-ringing, which goes horribly wrong, it is the Catholic church in disarray. Consider the characters, the sacristan, the lead character, is a storyteller with a lewd story to tell, the married woman who arranges the flowers for Sunday mass has a torrid affair with him - at one point she strips off and dons a surplice to run wildly across the stage. The young priest cannot keep control nor can he keep the temptation of alcohol at bay - he is more often drunk than sober - and the altar boy has serious Special Educational Needs. The set is terrifically gothic with a high chapel window at the back and the physical side of the play is interesting as we see how bells are actually rung. But is the play about time and memory? It is about lifetimes passing in the anteroom of a Catholic chapel in Wexford and there are some startling theatrical coups to mark that passage of time. The thing about memory seems to be how people can forgive and forget the bad things that happen to them. That at least is Christian in the universal sense.

CRAIC 6/10

VALUE FOR MONEY 8/10

FINAL VERDICT This is my least favourite of the plays. My main problem with it is that much of the significant action happens off stage, it is a kind of narration, a confession. Gary Lydon who plays the sacristan is engaging enough but there was too sentimental a side to the play to hold my attention fully.

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AS THE BEAST SLEEPS

A new play by Gary Mitchell

reviewed by Shaun Traynor

This is a play about change and how if affects us and how we re-act to it. It is therefore very contemporary. In offices, in schools, everywhere in society change in procedures is taking place, how we greet each other, how we tackle problems, they aren’t problems, they are challenges now - and so on.

The playwright Belfast born-and-bred Gary Mitchell takes a tiny microcosm of our society, well actually the UDA - so it’s not an essentially typical microcosm - but nevertheless he sets out to see how change affects its members. We are talking here about not very bright people caught up in a very sophisticated process.

The most telling remark comes early in the play, “Since this peace process started, we never get to kill Catholics any more, it’s all punishment beatings against Catholics.” This may not be the exact line but it will convey the mystification felt by the guys on the ground, at the bottom of the chain of command in this organisation.

Their immediate team leader or line manager or what can you call him (?) and then his leader and then the “higher up person” leader all have different agendas, so the poor foot soldiers, boot soldiers, knee-cap soldiers, get confusing messages. All they want to do, their only agenda, is to keep Ulster as “NornIreland” and, oh yes, kill Catholics. This is their twin agenda according to this play, but filtering down the chain of command is the implication that this is no longer - or for the time being anyway - politically correct. Shucks!

The plot is very ingenious, there are the foot soldiers and boot soldiers at the bottom of the chain of command with their leader, Kyle played calmly and menacingly by Robert Donovan, there is his line manager, Larry, again menacingly played by Simon Wolfe; there is his line manager, the big boss, newly elected representative to the Good Friday agreement assembly who is the one who says “We’ve got to cool it for a while.” But to add to the confusion, this top cat needs £35,000 expenses to hob-nob with the other Stormont politicians when they go abroad, he needs his limmo, his five star hotel. So he looks to his team’s ancient skills to provide this for him. They form a “social club” up the Shankill Road.

The guys on the ground wonder what the big boss is up to. Tensions develop.

The relationship between Kyle and his wife, Sandra, (there is also a Linda; no Theresa’s or Sineads here!) is emblematic of the confusion; she was harder line than him “in the good old days”, he is trying to take the long view, follow his line manager’s instructions, hoping that the top guy will one day bring down from Stormont, from the very clouds of politics, a solution for Ulster. She is impatient as are his team.

Throughout the play all these loyalists - although in conflict with each other - constantly re-assert their undying love of Ulster and loyalty to the Britain. As power shifts away from Loyalism, so the foot soldiers become more disparate and all kind of wild things begin to happen. This is plot.

As to theme, at one point one of the characters says, “It’s very simple, we hate Catholics, they hate us,” this is the fulcrum of the play. Gary Mitchell still lives in Belfast. Maybe in the rat holes of bigotry there in my still beloved city, this is now the case. I trust not.

I saw the playwright at the first night, he looked young and rubicund, certainly fresh-faced. The scars must be underneath, scars from spiritual punishment beatings.

The play has a plot, so is this play art or is it just merely a thriller?

What a snobbish question to ask, the theatrical impact left me shaking. It’s a terrific night of excitement and yes, there are lots of laughs as well.

Craic: 10/10

Value for money: 10/10

Final Verdict: An intelligent and perceptive play about a microcosm of our society.

Details: ricycle Theatre 269 Kilburn High Rd London NW6 Until 13th Oct 2001
Nightly 8pm, Sat Mat 4pm. From £9 Box office 020 7328 1000

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WINE IN THE WILDERNESS

by Alice Childress

Shaun Traynor reviews WINE IN THE WILDERNSSS, a black American play set in the Harlem riots of 1964, which he says has pertinent and forceful resonance for all of us who are first or second generation Irish in Britain.

Although the play is set amidst riots it all takes place inside an artist’s studio so the riots have very little to do with the plot of the play except that there are riots of the heart and mind. Ricco Ross plays Bill Jameson, a successful, second-generation black, American artist who is arranging an exhibition for himself, the centrepiece of which will be a triptych called Black Womanhood.

Bill’s idea of black womanhood is childhood innocence and the beauty of ancient, noble Africa.

Between these two commendable impulses must be painted a contrast picture, a picture of life on the streets, a portrait of a woman who lives amongst the dregs of urban society, a no-hoper, a failure, a kind of down-and-out. It is a model for this painting that Bill is seeking to find as the play opens and into his life arrives Tomorrow Fields, enchanting, suspicious and full of her own high self esteem, not at all the obedient submissive broken-spirited model the artist wanted.

She is played deliciously and breathtakingly by my actress of the year, Jenny Jules.

Also in the cast is Old Timer, a first generation stereotype, gambling, drinking, speaking poetically. The second-generation successful artist looks down on this stereotype, he sees himself as having advanced away from those beginnings, the betting shop, the drinking club, the loquacity of the underdog. He feels modern and successful and laconic, a part of a completely different generation and landscape.

In Wine in the Wilderness the whole question of national and cultural identity is movingly explored with wit and pathos from a first and second generation point of view.

The play is preceded by a short new play called WATER which is ably acted and directed and is a thought provoking prelude.

As at all civilised tables, water is served before wine, so at The Tricycle the palate is prepared for the main dish, Jenny Jules. It is her evening. The direction by Nicholas Kent, the Tricycle’s artistic director, is, as ever, immaculate, and he directs Ms Jules into some breathtaking akimbo poses and sulks. It’s quite a night

Craic 10/10

Value for Money 10/10

Final Verdict Very funny, profound, don’t miss it.

Box Office Details: Venue: Tricycle theatre 269 Kilburn High Rd London NW6 tel 020 7328 1000
Dates: 15th Feb – Sat 17th March 2001. Performances: Mon–Sat 8pm Matinees, Wed 2pm and Sat 4pm
Ticket prices: £7.50 up to £15 (check box office for conditions and availability)

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FAITH HEALER

by BRIAN FRIE

REVIEWED BY SHAUN TRAYNOR

This is a play about a travelling faith healer, his partner and his agent. Each of these three have a monologue each in which to tell their story or totell the story from their point of view. So the play is rather like a veryslow-moving encircling urn which can speak.

Faith Healer predates two recent theatrical hits, Conor McPherson’s The Weir and Port Authority, both feats of storytelling, both plays in which peopletake turns, but this is the daddy of them all.

It is a bleak, very sad piece with littler light relief. It is a genuinetragedy. It is the story of a man, a prophet, a genius, a charlatan, analcoholic, a little bit of all those things, who after a lifetime on theroad in Wales and England and Scotland decided to take his gift back home toIreland.

He should have been mindful of James Joyce’s warning all those years ago: “Itis dangerous to leave one’s country, but still more dangerous to go back to it, for then your fellow-countrymen, if they can, will drive a knife into your heart.”

Something terrible happened on the night of the emigrant’s return to Ballybegnear Donegal town. That is the plot of the play. The denoument is truly horrific and the lighting (by award winning Mark Henderson) plays a duet, a fugue, with the text. It is an unforgettable moment.

The theme of the play is different, the plot purports to be about a faithhealer, but maybe it’s about living with a writer, living with an artist, living with an alchoholic ego-maniac and the highs and lows and mood swings associated with that sort of thing, think of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, of Lawrence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, I could go on.

The play opens with a monologue from Ken Stott as the faith healer where he explains his inability to see himself as anything, he has healed people so he is not a charlatan but he feels he is, he is tormented by self doubt and self questioning, the artist’s torture. A young female student once asked JamesJoyce why do you drink so much, he replied “To kill the dreaded imagination.

”The second monologue is delivered by Geraldine James (of Kavanagh QC fame and much else, I just luv her!) a consummate piece of acting as she tells herside of the story, the wife’s tale if you like.

Then the third monologue is delivered by Ian McDiarmid as the cockney agent,a kind of a little spiv, his last act before the faith healer was a whippet who could play the bagpipes - so there is some light relief here until the character moves closer and closer to that night in Ballybeg and tragedy grips you like a wet, bloodied overcoat.

This is one of Brian Friel’s masterpieces, Brian Friel is quite simply the best dramatist writing today and if you meet him he’s nice with it. Genius he is, but the play can’t be about him, can it? Were there at the beginning tortured insecurities? This is a human and a humane play, I feel humbled and enlightened by it, frightened too about the complexities and terror in human nature.

See it and be part of the masterpiece.

Details: Almeida at Kings Cross Omega Pl Caledonian Rd N1 (opp Kings X Thames) 020 7 359 4404 Mon - Sat 7.30pm Mat Sat 3pm Ends Sat 19th Jan. Tickets £6 - £27.50

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FURTHER THAN THE FURTHEST THING

This play comes garlanded in plaudits. It is billed as “a last chance to see” something truly remarkable. It is written by a woman called Zinnie Harris and is about what might have happened or did happen on an island called Tristan da Cunha, a long, a long time ago, well it was only 1961 but so primitive were the people that they seem a world away. As the press night audience trooped out of the theatre exhausted and exhilarated it was not hard to see why this play was talked about as being something special. Further than the Furthest Thing is storytelling on an epic scale.

The story begins simply enough, a loving couple, “old bones”, eke out their days on this remote island, happy in their own company, in love with each other, in a marriage which binds and grows like bindweed. Then a stranger comes with ideas for change and as their world begins to disintegrate, so a volcano also threatens the island. At the terrifying climax of the first act (some 90 minutes in, so it is a long play) the volcano erupts, but already the islanders’lives have been threatened from corruption within. Tristan was then a British dominion (rather as was/or is The Falklands) and it is interesting to note how Britain dealt with the natural disaster which made instant refugees of these islanders. The programme notes contain extracts from newspapers of the time: here is the one which made me chuckle loudest,

The brave islanders of Tristan da Cunha received a truly British welcome when they landed at Southampton this morning. Their tragic plight has aroused sympathy and the goodwill of the whole country and as they set foot on the soil of their Motherland for the first time the good wishes of millions follow them. After learning our ways they will be free to decide whether to start again on an island or integrate here. Whatever their decision, they will need help and kindly understanding.

Jack Straw please note!

The second act is about how these primitive islanders adapt to life in Britain and in the more moving sequences there are poetic evocations of an emigrant’s longing for his and her homeland. Although the play does have tragic overtones it is very, very funny and rich in characterisation. The performance of Paola Dionisotti as the wife is absolutely perfect in its nuances, in its intimacy with the audience and in its wonderful stage presence. She has lovely little turns of the head which say “I’m my own person.” David Burke, as her husband, in a less attractive role, plods along under her shadow; under the shadow of the volcano and under the yoke of his ability to mess things up. Men! Gary McInnes as the nephew and Mairead McKinley as his pregnant sweetheart also give gritty and realistic performances but for me the acting of the night came from Paul Shelley as the intruder. All the actors seemed completely at home on this stage, I have never seen such strange and naturalistic performances, never seen such perfect timing. (Well perhaps not since Mill on the Floss, but that was an even further thing). This was an ensemble production to be cherished, a model against which all future - so called - ensemble productions must be judged. The play is brought to us by The Royal National Theatre and the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, in association with the Tricycle Theatre. The playwright is young and tells (again in the programme notes) of her grandfather who was a pastor to the island. He wrote poetry there,

Austere, this lonely Rock at the earth’s end

Defies still all the astonished ocean ...

Her play is based on these childhood reminiscences, on half remembered stories, remembrances of dialect and pattoi and how the islanders viewed the “H’outside Warld.” This I believe is the secret of the play’s success, it is heartfelt, it is original. As the playwright spins her web, twining fantasy and reality, certainty and superstition, so her story becomes utterly spellbinding.

Details: Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn NW6 Until 23rd June 2001. Mon-Sat 8p.m. Matinees Sats 4pm and also Wed 13th and 20th June at 2pm

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BECOMING STRANGERS

by Severine Ruset

reviewed by SHAUN TRAYNOR

This is an ad hoc production filling a gap left by something else. It is therefore a perfect opportunity for a star to be born and indeed a star was born at the Jacksons Lane Theatre in North London last Tuesday night.

The play is written by French woman Severine Ruset and is about a young man from a village returning after a war in which he took no part. I wonder what he expected, to be greeted with open arms, if you’ll forgive the pun.

The play is about how most of his family welcome him but his father is in denial, he would rather say his son is dead than not having been, actually, in Serbia, during the war. Some of the most touching scenes are about the alienation between father and son, one generation with the next.

The star though is the young man’s younger sister played by actress, Sophie Trott. She is probably a twenty something but can appear on stage as a child, gamin-like, full of energy, innocence and intelligence. At the beginning of the first act she imitates what is going to happen when Lutvo returns, she plays all the parts of the different members of her family in a marvellously burlesque soliloquy, not so much words, although the words and delivery are excellent, but in the sheer physicality of a marvellous young actress at home on stage.

Irishman, Steven D’Arcy plays Lutvo in a handsomely compelling performance and his friends whom he brings from his exile in Italy are also handsome and muscular. I should mention perhaps he ran away from the war to join a circus so we are talking acrobats! The plot is depressingly familiar, young man returns home, things seem OK at first then the resentment begins to show and then a tragic denouement.

Almost all the Irish plays I have reviewed over the last few years have been about this. Do we have to go back in a box? Fatima, Lutvo’s older sister is charmingly played by Joanna Bending. This is a modern Muslim family so I suppose it’s OK that she hops into bed with one of Lutvo’s acrobat friends.

I found lots of things like this disconcerting because although this was supposed to be a village in remotest Serbia, everybody was behaving as if they had just left RADA, cut glass accents and all, it could have been Esher. The writing was crisp and at times truly poetic. There were shades of Chekhov in bits of some scenes but the writer seems determined on action, action, action, so no-one really gets a chance to settle down.

There was a wonderfully moving piece at the end concerning the magic wood, a forest where all the family played and got lost in when in childhood. Now everyone is grown up and the magic forest takes on a deeper resonance. I believed in this play, in its writer and its actors and in its director, Gavin McAlinden.

Details Jacksons Lane Theatre (Highgate Tube) Eves at 8pm until Sat 3 Nov 2001. Tickets £9 Conc £6 Box Office 020 8341 4421

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THE KINGS OF THE KILBURN HIGH ROAD

Shaun Traynor reviews the new play by Jimmy Murphy, THE KINGS OF THE KILBURN HIGH ROAD, and says “IF YOU HAVE TEARS, PREPARE TO SHED THEM NOW.”

When I did history at school it was all about Kings and Queens and Prime Ministers and politicians and rich ladies who tried their hand at prison reform. All that time I wondered why there wasn’t a history of the people rather than that of their rulers. I was also “taught Shakespeare” who did write of Falstaff as well as Kings and in his Royal-gazing phase, also wrote, “The play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” Here at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, Jimmy Murphy, Irish playwright, circa 2001, does just this, he catches, like a poacher, the conscience of his Kilburn Kings.

It is indeed a play about real people, about Irishmen who came from Ireland to England as labourers to become mock-heroically, Kings of the Kilburn High Road. They came as young men with all the bravado and recklessness of youth, then suddenly they are old, the bravado beaten out them by life’s failure to match up to expectations, they are over the hill, can’t swing a pick with the best of them any more. It comes as a shock that life can pass by in the blink of an eye, or in the downing of a pint. It is this universality of the emigrant experience which lifts the play out of its insular roots.

This is a play about crisis. For Murphy’s boys life has been about building roads and digging trenches, thirty years of hard labour none of which was ever in prison, but it felt like it, exiled in an alien society. Then one day, maybe at a wake in North London, anyone of us – of an age – could sit down, with drink, and take stock. You talk, not of what life is about in the philosophical sense, but what My Life is about, how I feel about myself and my best friends. So it is also a play about relationships.

The five male characters in the play do indeed meet at a wake for one of their work-mates in North London and as the drink goes down so tongues start to loosen and home truths come hurtling out like fists. It’s an (old) boys’ thing, like trashing the hotel room of life, except it is a bed-sit and when trashed there’s nowhere else to go. That’s why the play is sad, low self-esteem presses the self-destruct button.

Only one of the quintet of friends who all started out together has made it. He is called Joe Mullen and is played by Frank O’Sullivan; he is a smarmy success story. Sean Lawlor plays Jap Kavanagh, the storyteller, the dreamer of dreams and the drinker of drams, still capable of hope, even though the dreams have been shattered and much of hope is now spilt on the taproom floor, he still thinks, pathetically, that things might still get good again. Joseph M. Kelly plays Shay Mulligan, the truth-teller, quiet, sensible, also a victim in spite of his self-knowledge because he’s part of the historical set-up. Noel O’Donovan plays Git Miller, the observer, who wants to make everything OK, makes sure nobody falls out, the matchmaker. Eamonn Hunt plays Mr Grumpy in a towering performance, solid and with his own problems.

Three of the five are married and have children so their lives are not barren, and significantly are more integrated into the society of the host country. The other two, Jap Kavanagh and Git, boozing and building and rebel-songing their way through their lonely bed-sit life end sadly; the explanation is simple, they simply lost the plot. The plot – and this is explained very carefully and very forcefully to them - was to come over from Ireland, make a lot of dough, get back in maybe two years time at the most and swank around a bit. But - and it is the butt of the play -

The crack was good in Cricklewood

We never left The Crown...

The acting is perfection itself and the direction is consummate. I’m not going to give away the play’s plot because there is a good plot – well two plots actually - one the plot of the wake and the other the plot which tracks the progress of the day’s drinking. What I want to say is that the opening of the second act is as thrilling as anything I’ve seen in the theatre; it is essentially Behanesque, but it also matches perfectly with the moment in Dancing at Lughansa when the women get up and dance. It is one those staggeringly successful, contrived theatrical moments that will live in one’s mind forever. I must warn readers that the language is something else, it is you will understand the language of the taproom, not the lounge.

At the end of the play it’s closing down time for Jap and Git, I leave the boyos – sorry, I mean old men - with words for their wake, nails for their coffin, words from the poet, Rilke,

The kings of the earth are old

And will have no heirs.

This is a very fine, tragic play which, on opening night, took its place in world theatre.

Details: Where: The Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn High Rd. Box Office 020 7328 1000.
When: Mon 19th March – Sat 14th April 2001. Mon-Sat 8pm Mats Sat 4pm.
How much: Tickets: £8.50 - £15 Reductions and concessions available incl Pay What You Can on Mons at 8pm and Sat mat

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LUTHER

by John Osborne at The National Theatre

Reviewed by SHAUN TRAYNOR

This epic play covers the life of Protestant rebel Martin Luther. Well he wasn’t a Protestant, he was a Catholic, and a Catholic priest, to boot! I protest, he said one day, I am a Protestant, it’s what I do. I protest against the Holy Roman Catholic Church, I want to set it aside, this is what I do.

Well yes, he did do it for a very large number of people. From his pulpit in small-town Germany he converted a lot of people away from the Catholic church. And has continued to do so. What his gripe was and is, is the occasional abuse of the power of God on Earth. Because of the fallibility of some representatives of the Catholic faith, because of failings in some of its theological thinking, Luther decided to throw out baby with bath water.

I personally think he made a terrible mistake. The Sale of Indulgences was even then perceived as a bit O.T.T. But it was only part of Luther’s gripe. He also had bowel problems. He was also a considerable and influential intellectual and philosopher whose books were published and read widely. But he was a zealot, his fervour took him over and he used to shake in the pulpit as if he’d had the tablets (I mean the Moses’ ones) handed down to him alone. Just keep taking the tablets, Martin, was what all his colleagues in the monastery kept saying to him.

The part of Luther was played histrionically by Rufus Sewell so there were lots of female (maybe male as well) gasps all round the place when he got into one of his divine frenzies. The part I liked best was Cajetan, Tommaso di Vio, Cardinal of San Sisto, General of the Dominican order, memorably played by Malcolm Sinclair.

This was/is Catholicism in its (in my far from humble opinion, mea culpa,) highest earthly form, civilised, civilising, erudite, persuasive. Luther, by the way, was an Augustinian at the start of the play. Cajectan called him to retract, to renounce his new doctrine, his criticisms. Luther refused. The rest is history. Our history. This is a brilliant play, catch it if you can.

Details: Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1. Tel 020 7452 3000 Wed 7th Nov - Sun 11 Nov at 7.15pm but do please check with the box office for other performances and matinees. Until Wed 14th Nov. 2001

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PORT AUTHORITY

Shaun Traynor reviews Conor McPherson’s new play at the New Ambassadors Theatre in London’s West End. In these pages, back in 1997, Shaun was amongst the first to hail Conor McPherson as a rising star. Shaun wrote then, about The Weir, “This is a brilliantly scripted, brilliantly directed, brilliantly acted chamber piece. Let the seanchai begin his stories.” What will he think of this latest offering?

The play is directed by the playwright and opens with three men sitting waiting for a boat. Or at least that’s what it seems. A bell tolls out across water, we are obviously at a harbour, or is the bell simply tolling out a different watch? Very Beckett!

To pass the time they each get up and tell their story.

The first character is young and he talks about first leaving home and how apprehensive he was about going out into the wider world. His da says to him, “You’ll be home in a month.” That piece of negative scripting comes true. For the young man the world was too hostile a place, he couldn’t get to grips with it and there was a girl. There was a girl but she was with someone else. Oh if only things had been different! The girl fancied him, no doubt about that, and he fancied her but the authority was, the convention was, you don’t take your best friend’s gal. The young man followed convention, a missed opportunity; the sort of opportunity that only arrives once in a lifetime.

The next character is middle-aged, bluff and washed up, full of excuses and has a pathetic story to tell. His story is about when he had his first real chance of success and how he blew it. He got so pissed he couldn’t speak at the “dinner-party” interview and his future employer therefore made further enquiries about him only to find that he was the wrong person anyway in the first place. So he had actually blown what wasn’t really his any way. Pretty bad for the self esteem but another missed opportunity, this time to better oneself.

As each actor stands up to speak that bell tolls again. There is no sign of a ship but since the third character is really old maybe the bell is tolling for time passing, life slipping away?

This third character, the senior, has another story to tell of a missed opportunity. He thought the woman next door married to the man next door fancied him and he really fancied her but he didn’t want to get into any bother or upset the neighbourhood; the authority was, the convention was, don’t rock the boat. Now he is old and there is no boat, just this bell tolling.

Again this third and final story is about a crucial opportunity missed and

the rest of one’s life to rue it. Some of us look back on missed opportunities and suck them like sweets because what we have as second best isn’t too bad. The missed opportunities are Romance and the three characters in this play view their predicament with equanimity, almost as their lot. They therefore fulfill the comment of the nineteenth century American thinker, Thoreau, who said, “the mass of men live out their lives in a quiet desperation.”

The performance by Eanna MacLiam playing the young guy was engaging and natural and we were left with the feeling that when he went back home that was more or less the end for him at age 20. Life would be dull.

Stephen Brennan who played the middle aged guy was something completely different, again engaging but with more of a story to tell. Stephen Brennan gives a virtuoso performance; cometh the part, cometh the actor. I have never laughed so much or felt so apprehensive on a character’s behalf, during any actor’s soliloquy.

With the older guy, again superlatively played by Jim Norton, we began to get the hang of the whole thing. Here again was a decent guy, no harm in him, as Arthur Miller put it, “just another drummer who ended up in the ash can.”

But above the talking heads (and there were deepening shades of Alan Bennett here) the bell keeps tolling. What does the bell mean? There is no ship, no deliverance, so, is there just Life? John Donne might have had the answer when he advised, “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”.

Pessimistic, serious, truly beautiful, I recommend Port Authority to my readers with the proviso, it is a heavy number, heavy tolls the bell for Everyman.

Details: Mon-Sat at 7.45 pm. Thurs and Sat matinees at 3pm.
Tickets £7.50 - £28.00 Box Office 020 7369 1761. Limited season until 31st March

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MIDDEN

By Morna Regan at Hampstead Theatre

Review by SHAUN TRAYNOR

This is a first play by Derry-born Morna Regan. I hope it is not autobiographical because it depicts a family at war with itself, a family paralysed by grudges. Ruth (Michelle Fairley) returns from America after fifteen years of hard work culminating in success. She is a financial success story but she returns home insecure, touchy, desperately needing a mother’s love, tender, loving care. In this family that is just what is missing. There is also a mum’s mum, a Gran, who is also a monster. She has the smokescreen of senility so she can forget who she is talking to sometimes and say some really outrageous things.

But neither mum is sound and little sister has problems of her own. Ruth’s home-coming is a comic-tragedy. Comic? Well, the script is absolutely scintillating, brilliantly scripted lines, understated venom, all the old recognisable-from-home slagging-off, all the old baiting.

This is a tightly controlled play allowing the venom just to ooze out every so often as from a wounded, ugly animal. It is a gripping play with an excellent plot. Ruth Hegarty as Ma has an unattractive part to play, she is not a nice person. She delivers her lines with real hatred and chip-on-the-shoulder nastiness. But they are funny lines, if cruel. Gran has the easier part to play, but I have no wish to take away from a most appealing performance by Barbara Adair as she drifts in and out of madness.

There were two other eedjits, little sister played by Emma Colohan (always a delight when she is on stage) and business partner, Mab, played by Maggie Hayes, a little uncertainly, but a well written part. Don’t miss it, it’s craic.

Details: Hampstead Theatre, Avenue Rd, London NW3 (beside Swiss Cottage tube) Mon 5th Nov - Thurs 8th Nov 2001 at 7.30pm but please check other times with box office, 020 7722 9301. Prices £10 - £14. Ends Sat 10th Nov

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MONEY FROM AMERICA

by TOM O’BRIEN

MONEY FR0M AMERICA is about two brothers who fall out. Laurence has stayed all his life at home in Co Waterford and in a poor enough looking dwelling, the family pig farm. Older brother Jack has been thirty years in “Americay” and now has come back and has decided to sell the family farm (which he has inherited) and buy a B+B up the coast with his new business woman fiancée. Laurence would be allowed to come too but would have to live in a caravan out the back because he is so disreputable in appearance and unsophisticated in manner, he might frighten off the guests. That’s the plot and dark deeds are done in bouts of sibling rivalry and revenge.

Tom O’Brien, the playwright, has presented us with an interesting assortment of characters: Laurence is as bog as you can get, Jack as urban as Italian shoe leather; the fiancée is played rather meekly and without charisma by Kara Chase although her venomous words to and about Laurence set the seal for disaster. Then there is Molly Kehoe, once the local beauty but now up to her armpits in pig-swill, she is bitter and astute and has some great lines. However Josephine McCarthy plays this part rather flat, almost as if she were concussed, there was no modulation, there weren’t the great torrents of anger and regret which the writing did give to her. Maybe she was told to do it like that, I don’t know.

The male actors did rather better, Tony O’Brien as the likeable rural rogue and principally Seamus Newham who gave an excellently measured performance as Jack. Even the smaller parts had their presence, Daniel Philpott, out of his element and madly eye-flashing as the Dublin CID man and Bernard Thomas as a stolid, parochial figure, the local Gard aiding. and abetting!

The direction also by Seamus Newham was as controlled as his acting and the set design by Phil Newman had a really authentic feel to it. It was good to see a move away from minimalism, the set designer’s doss.

Thinking again of concussion, one has got to say there are an awful lot of Irish plays set in outlying Ireland about people getting clobbered over the head with a spade or a slane. Most recently in Martin McDonagh’s A Skull in Connemara, the stage was literally littered with broken skulls. In Playboy of the Western World the Da appears well into the play with a bloodstained bandage round his head. In Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, we again have rural violence. It’s in us! Be warned!

CRAIC 7/10

VALUE FOR MONEY 10/10

FINAL VERDICT: O’Brien’s achievement in this play is to have created a set of believable characters with a good story to enact. Imbued in all their actions and speeches there shines like a policeman’s torch, the playwright’s love of and searching for humanity, a trademark he shares with all great writers and poets.

At Pentameters Theatre 28 Heath St London NW3 Until 12th November 2000 Tues – Sat at 8pm Sunday 5pm
Tickets: £8 (Concessions £6) Box Office 020 7435 3648

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UMOJA (In the Spirit of Togetherness)

Reviewed by SHAUN TRAYNOR

This new, exclusively black, dance extravaganza from the townships of South Africa seeks to tell the story of South Africa’s musical tradition but to be frank, it is most at home with its tribal past. The plot does mention some bits of modernity such as urban influences from Durban and Johannesburg but the musical comes alive and stays alive and kicking when it delves into what it calls “Africa’s” past.

The narrator speaks throughout of Africa, as if he spoke for a whole nation. His narration is charming and well delivered but completely empty of politics. It’s kind of like black people in Africa had a really tough time, but after all, the black man had his music, as if that were a panacea for everything. The music he refers to was an expression of a nation’s soul in torment. I felt uneasy with such whimsy but if you can get over the bland forgetfulness of the show you will have a really brilliant time. It was like eating black ice cream. It was fun.

The audience enjoyed the show, this was indeed UMOJA, the Swahili word for The Spirit of Togetherness. We were all together. There were lots of different types of music and dancing, all stemming from the drum beat, the wooden xylophone, then on to the big brass in the background, trumpets and saxophones. On stage the dancers are like black magic, beautiful, lithe men and women sometimes in the scant clothes of their past, sometimes in full African robe regalia.

It is an all-dancing, loud, pulsating evening, it is show-biz dance at its highest level and incredibly charming. You get the feeling that these dancers, male and female and yes, they were very male and very female, are also really nice people. The programme notes build on this instinct.

The show has taken years to develop from work with disadvantaged kids from the townships and has been brought together by two talented and persistent women, Tod Twala and Thembi Nyandeni, veterans of the seventies South African hit musical, Ipi Ntombi. What they have brought together is true professionalism. What makes if different and better is the fact that the show-biz troupe of young men and young women weren’t all the same, stereotyped slim, off a production line, they were individuals, some more attractive than others, some fatter, some thinner, but a team. This was Umoja beauty.

I have never seen such energy and grace on stage, also mad humour: there is a sequence - I think - called gum-boot dancing, where the men are in wellies and not much else, kicking up a storm - Live and Reeling - but they wear, one must say, rather cool wellies and their shorts and singlets leave little to the female imagination. This was a show-stopper. There is also a brilliant gospel choir sequence in the second act which includes a blissfully good duet from Siboniso Dladla and Jackie Kumbuzile, Best Show Song 2001, maybe even Best Musical. The finale had the audience on their feet for standing ovation after standing ovation.

Charm and energy won this night alongside Africa’s pulsating tribal music. We critics didn’t stand a chance, it was Rourke’s Drift all over again.

Details Shaftesbury Theatre, Shaftesbury Ave (Holborn end) box office 020 7379 5399
Thurs 22nd Nov 2001 3pm and 7.30pm Mon19th - Sat 24th Nov 2001 8pm
Prices (West End!) £17.50 - £37.50) Please check times and run with box office.

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