Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
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The Murderers

by Daniel Mornin

The Cottesloe

Review by Irving Wardle, The Times, 25 September 1985

The reopening of the Cottesloe with a festival of 10 new plays developed in Peter Gill's National Theatre Studio is a heartening event, restoring a much-missed performance space and a line of work recalling the Royal Court's productions without decor. Two months from now, when the studio quits the theatre, I expect we shall be looking back to the festival as a landmark of the year.

As so often, however, the cheer of welcome for some brave new venture turns to a strangulated gurgle when it delivers the goods. Daniel Mornin's play is the work of an able and impassioned writer, and Mr Gill's production retains its cool precision in the face of the utmost violence. Otherwise, this strikes me as the most unhelpful work I have seen on the subject of Northern Ireland.

Murderers tells the story of Tommy (Ewan Stewart), a Protestant boy who throws in his London job and returns to Belfast seeking revenge when his father is killed in a pub bombing. Heaping abuse on his schoolteacher sister (who lost her virginity to a Catholic), he joins a para-military cell, pledging his readiness to commit any act in Ulster's defence. The comrades test him out on a middle-aged prisoner, into whose guts Tommy obediently thrusts a bayonet. But when they then include him in a Stormont anti-truce bombing raid (the date is 1972), Tommy refuses to join them. 'One's enough', he says; leaving them to go and blow themselves up.

Whatever Belfast the author's own sectarian background, his title focuses exclusively on the Protestants; almost to a man on heat for the big day. Conducting their business from the back room of a drinking club, they are well individualized as members of a killer tribe. They include a joker, a street thug, a teasing sadist, a taciturn quarter-master and a leader, Sam (Patrick Drury), who exerts commanding authority. But, if they have any reason for joining the movement beyond the pleasure of wielding Armalites and battering defenceless victims, we never learn what it is. Religion is hardly mentioned. The supposed crime of the Catholics is that they are 'trying to take our country away'; a slogan that is simply repeated as a pretext for any reprisal they care to take.

Tommy, who rarely has much to say for himself except when attacking his sister, has one burst of anti-British eloquence. 'To Londoners', he says, 'we're just Irish drunks fighting outside a pub. We're all Paddies to them.' Well, yes; and one function of Irish writers is to put us straight about that. All Mr Mornin does is to confirm the stereotype, with the usual black Irish accompaniment of brutality and sexual hatred.

The most revealing detail in the evening appears in Alison Chitty's set: a back wall in the form of a gigantic pub slate, on which the image of the Queen has been chalked up, with the dates 1690-1972, in record of a long-outstanding debt. Otherwise the stage consists of beer crates, variously assembled to form various locations, while preserving an unvarying image of starved excess.

Within these bleak limits the production moves between the outright horror of a prolonged and bloody murder to the fun and games of the killers; with the laughing boy Smicker (Andrew Byatt), stripped naked for group punishment, coolly putting in an order for green chartreuse without ice. Whatever the violence, switches of that kind save the show from falling into monotony; and Mr Gill's team (also including Paul Moriarty and Daniel Webb) amount to the most intimidating Irish gang since Patrick Magee brought on his robber band in A Whistle in the Dark.

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