by Daniel Mornin
Review by Michael Coveney, Financial Times, 25 September 1985
"We've felt crippled since the Cottesloe closed" said Sir Peter Hall at the below-mentioned ceremony. He then cut the red tape, diplomatically slapped both the GLC and Lord Cottesloe on the back and we all barged back into the little black box for what turned out to be a thoroughly gripping, scrupulously well presented and low-key provocative new play by Daniel Mornin set in East Belfast in the early 1970s.
Alison Chitty's design of beer crate building blocks, ominously projected unchanging dates of 1690 and 1972 and overblown silk screen monarchist pound note icon is the perfect setting for a Protestant drinking club in which the politically vacillating Tommy (Ewan Stewart), newly returned from across the water, seeks revenge, or at least explanation, for his father's murder.
Unfashionably, the piece is restricted to the Ulster loyalist social background, with fired-off insults against the IRA Republicans and a sort of inverted O'Casey glee in its stage evocation of a comically inter-related but confusedly motivated community. The hardline activist Sam (Patrick Drury) bemoans the fact that they are losing the province not to the IRA but to Westminster. This remains a political distinction little understood by many of us in England, and it is given eloquent dramatic exposition.
The wrong man is dragged in and subjected by the gang to a most gruesomely violent humiliation: stripped naked, old Pat (Michael O'Hagan) has his face smashed by a glass, his ribs stuck by a knife, his abdomen kicked by a chorus of pounding feet. Not a pretty sight. The interval; then, unexpectedly, even more evidence of atrocity in the same direction.
While Peter Gill's production may not amount to a family show, it certainly takes hold as a convincing unreported scenario leading to the suspension of Stormont in 1972. "I want Ulster to stay British, because British is best" is one apostrophised line, and the challenge in many ways of the play is to our easy assumption that British nationalism is rooted in republican dissension. The play is thus genuinely controversial, and ends on a classically lyrical Gill semicolon with a committed "Prod" (Lorcan Cranitch) arguing the long-term issues with the incestuously inclined Tommy.
It is all done with admirable sensitivity and discretion, even if I did find Ewan Stewart distinctly under-expressive in the main role. Andrew Byatt and Daniel Webb provide notably interesting and well-observed performances in a play that is fascinating, subversive and, most important of all, on the side of illumination through freshly dramatised experience. The Cottesloe is back in business with, you might say, a vengeance, and Peter Gill renewed as a creative director. Not before time.
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