Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The History of the Peace (accordin' to my Ma) - Grand Opera House until 30 April + tour

A cacophony of news reports and voices hushes the audience as cast of four walk out from the dark wings to begin The History of the Peace (accordin’ to my Ma). It was obvious from the huge on-stage letters that the ‘peace’ is not yet complete!

Karen Reid (played by Maria Connolly) narrates much of the play, facing the audience as she moves the storyline forward over the twenty or so years covered by the script. She’s a shouty mother who cares about her community, meets a pipe-wielding loyalist and wants to get a community centre built in East Belfast … a recognisable amalgam of Dawn Purvis and Linda Ervine.

The cast remain on stage for the duration of the performance and slip in and out of their multiple roles as quickly as donning a pair of sunglasses or rearranging a scarf. They know each other well from previous shows and the chemistry is there from the start.

Karen’s best friend from school days is Stacey McCoubrey (Tara Lynne O’Neill), a libidinous hair dresser with an eye for footballers (and three children to prove it). With a fetching eye patch Tara transforms into ‘big Denise’, a scary woman who could be put to good use getting the audience to stop lighting up the auditorium with their phones during the performance.

Firebell (Conor Grimes) is cousin of the companion play’s hospital porter Fireball and shares his endearing lisp. He’s an entrepreneurial funeral director and wins the hearts of the audience with his hilarious physical comedy. Firebell also offers a line of witty cremation jokes (though someone from Roselawn Cemetery should really offer to show him round so he understands how the actual process works).

Alan McKee plays husbands, a band master and Pineapple the UDA brigadier. The perfect timing between McKee and Grimes is a joy to watch.

Written by Martin Lynch, Grimes and McKee, there are lots of name checks for landmarks like The Bethany and the Strand Cinema, as well as a shout out for NICVA. We race through ceasefires, Drumcree, peace talks, the Chuckle brothers, the flag protests, and the new caravan park at Twaddell. The between-scene strains of Van Morrison don’t excuse the Cyprus Avenue legend from being called “grumpy”: no one escapes.

The audience save their loudest and longest laughs for the five minutes of unsympathetic material about Iris Robinson and Kirk McCambley set in the Lock Keeper’s Inn. It’s not clear why early in the first half we needed to chortle at the Canary Wharf bombing (which killed two people and injured many others). Too soon. Someone behind me sounded like they were about to wet themselves with laughter when some Irish was spoken in the context of a cross-community weekend that injected hope until the script reintroduced the stereotypes.
“[Short Strand Catholics] … they’re just decent people like ourselves, but when we get back to Belfast they’ll still be Fenian bastards.”

It’s more than ten years since I took my seat in the Grand Opera House stalls to see one of the many reruns of the original History of the Troubles (accordin’ to my Da). It grew out of a commission by the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. Fireball’s lisp and shouts of “the balloon is up” live on in my mind. It was a review of the Troubles 1969-2002 performed post ceasefire, looking back at a past chapter with a line drawn under it having turned the page.

The History of the Peace (accordin’ to my Ma) suffers from the fact that we’re still stuck in this new post-ceasefire conflicted chapter, struggling to turn any more pages. The play is impaired by its lack of plot. Karen’s struggle to get a community centre built and her family tragedy at the start of the second half on their own are not enough to compensate for the Horrible Histories treatment of the peace process.

The irony of the flag protests – corrected on stage to be ‘fleg’ – is allowed to fly over the heads of the giggling audience. All hope is finally buried when the final moralising soliloquy admits that our twenty years of “perfect imperfection” leaves us with “squabbling [and] worrying” as “the sound of peace”.

While the action swings from the west of the city to the east, Ivan Little gets a fond name check and there are still babies, lisps and political impersonations. The gender balance of ‘Ma’ is infinitely better than ‘Da’. There are some great set pieces. The shapes thrown during “Girls just want to have fun” reenergised the audience (whose interval imbibing definitely relaxed their funny bones). Dan Gordon’s direction is crisp and takes full advantage of David Craig’s simple five letter set: the Carl Frampton toilet joke is beautifully executed.

A few years ago Martin Lynch made a fuss about theatres in Belfast being middle class and the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure at Stormont launched an inquiry into “Inclusion in the Arts of Working-class Communities”.

Monday night’s performance The History of the Peace was professionally acted, succeeded in entertaining the crowd and finished with a standing ovation. But if the show represents Martin Lynch’s ambition for how the arts should reach out to working class communities then he surely underserves his target audience. There are no layers, no complexity and little subtlety. The sweary script reduces history to a succession of jokes that we lap up and laugh at. It’s commercial, but not challenging.

The History of the Peace (accordin’ to my Ma) is being performed in the Grand Opera House until Saturday 30 April. GBL Productions will then tour the show through Antrim, Banbridge, Omagh, Monaghan, Cookstown, Newcastle, Enniskillen, Coleraine and Strabane - dates and venues on their website.

No comments: