Saturday, April 30, 2016

Here Comes The Night - ambitious tragicomedy set in 1966 and 2016 (Lyric until 14 May)

The first half of Rosemary Jenkinson’s new play Here Comes The Night sets up an extended study of a less than budding republican writer (played by Michael Condron) who is otherwise workshy and lives with his pregnant wife Mary (Kerri Quinn) and her younger sister Jenny (Susan Davey) in a mostly Protestant street in east Belfast.

Vincent Gallagher’s fired-up prose is affected by his celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising and Mary worries that this will engender a notoriety that will put the family at risk from local loyalist activists and enlists the help of her priest (Niall Cusack).
“Who do you thing you are? Wolfe Tone?”

Another man of letters, Freddie the postman (Thomas Finnegan), is their link to the dominant local community.

His cross-community fondness for young Jenny is perhaps not his most disruptive trait when menacing troublemakers gather outside the Gallagher house.

The pace and satire are moved up a notch in the second half when the same cast return playing new characters who have moved into the same house fifty years later in 2016. Marta (Davey) is a Polish community worker who is supporting Syrian refugees being resettled in Belfast. She’s moved in with local boy Jim (Condron). Again the couple are outsiders, at a distance from the local community and keen not to be brought to their attention. Displacement is all around.

The arrival of a mustard trouser wearing representative of the Ulster Historical Society and a blue plaque to be erected to mark the home of the utterly unremarkable yet newly rediscovered Vincent Gallagher causes a stir. But it is the entrance of Donna Ni Duineachair (Quinn), Minister of Culture Arts and Leisure, that blows the situation up into a storm. Racism is layered on top of sectarianism and a post mortem is swiftly carried out on the new Northern Ireland.

It’s a relief to find that the second half does not completely mirror the first. The ghosts of 1966 are subject to revisionism. Old difficulties are faced but new mistakes are made. Real life figures like 2014-15 poet laureate Sinéad Morrissey invade the script. The Culture Minister Donna is remarkably familiar: the Socrates/Sophocles reference is from a real speech delivered in Cultúrlann that I recorded and published online!

The period costumes pick up the 1966 brown theme of the confined living room created by Linbury Prize-winning Grace Smart. The scene changes and air guitar playing sequences overlaid with (mostly) 1966 music are a little too prolonged. A snatch of Bowie after the interval pins the action in contemporary times.

Jenny’s dancing feels quite exuberant, even for the swinging sixties though Davey offers a sophisticated portrayal of Marta, a heavenly messenger turned fallen angel. While everyone is a foil for Condron’s comic timing, every character is blessed with laugh out loud lines including Father Black who accuses Vincent of “fighting the British with your Schaefer”. There are some great original jokes in the play and the Lyric audience titter along with glee.

The set is small, but Here Comes The Night’s ambition is huge and director Jimmy Fay takes advantage of the play being staged in the Lyric’s main auditorium. The placement and direction of Philip Stewart’s sound effects stand out from most plays, with a baying crowd, stones on windows and the odd call of a sea gull.

Jenkinson explores the freedom of artists to “be free to write what they want” as well as the politicisation of culture and remembering in Northern Ireland. There are also nods towards a writer’s immortality versus controversiality, a fine line that writers of satire must tread. An off stage, off colour joke in the second half pushes boundaries and audience buttons; the anxiety in the stalls lightens when, after a pause, the character acknowledges what they’ve done.

References to a “culturally monolithic community” resonated with echoes of Jenkinson’s earlier play The Bonefire [script available on Amazon]. Maybe one day, along with David Ireland’s Cyprus Avenue, it will be staged in Northern Ireland.

Here Comes The Night is an entertaining tragicomedy with novel humour and an outsider’s perspective. It runs in the Lyric until 14 May. It’s funny, sassy and surely an apposite reminder that it’s possible to reference the Troubles in drama without revelling in the conflict or merely squeezing out cheap jokes rather than challenge.

Photo credit: Steffan Hill / Lyric Theatre Belfast

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