Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Lantern Man – projecting reality and discovering truth

Back in 2013 a box of old glass lantern slides were discovered in the organ loft of Alexandra Presbyterian Church. Research showed that the slides were copies of photographs provided by families in Castleton Presbyterian Church. They depicted relatives serving ‘at the front’, images of both men who survived and men who were killed in action. You can find out more on the Castleton Lanterns website.

The discovery inspired theatre critic turned playwright Jane Coyle to write a fictional story: The Lantern Man. Johnny has returned home to Dublin wounded in the World War One battlefield in France. Inheriting a set of lantern slides taken by a relative employed as an army photographer, he screens the images in a local club in a bid to give a glimpse of loved ones to families.
“A credit to Ireland my arse!”
Set in the months prior to the Easter Rising, the play highlights the criticism faced by some returning to Ireland having “fought for the British”. It also draws attention to the discomfort felt by those in authority about revealing the true conditions of war to families back home and to potential new recruits.

Johnny (played by Shane Whisker) finds that his lantern show stirs up negative emotions in some viewers, while giving others hope that they can find out the truth about their dead children. These twin narratives – along with the exposure of several secrets in Johnny’s past – and family dynamics that wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of Eastenders or The Jeremy Kyle Show – slowly propel the play towards its climax.

The women are strong and fairly open minded while the men constantly teeter on the brink of failure. Mrs Haughey (Libby Smyth) is Johnny’s landlady, a character who morphs from a stern busybody to become the play’s comic turn before she stops hovering at the door of her parlour and fades from view.

Along the way we meet Joe (Noel McGee) who moved his wife Sylvia (Julie Kinsella) and daughter Christina (Hannah Coyle) from London to Dublin. On the other posher side of the river, fur-coated Alice (Cathy Brennan-Bradley) is also affected by the war. While the menfolk fought side by side, can their families overcome class and ideological differences to remember and honour them together?

A mysterious man called Wainwright (James Doran) – who at first I thought was going to be a Russian spy – adds to the intrigue. With a cast of seven, few actors other than Johnny are given the space to develop their characters and shine.

The action mostly rotates around two or three clumps of furniture built in different corners of the stage. Director Stephen Beggs makes good use of the space around the audience during the lantern show scene.

The play succeeds in exploring the changing mood in Ireland - both just over 100 years ago and today - in relation to the war. But the relatively short scenes prevented the play building up pace, and while the later twists and turns introduced some tension into the final twenty minutes, ultimately The Lantern Man failed to ignite an electrifying spark that could make the play jump off the page and stage and into my imagination.

During September The Lantern Man is touring venues in Newry (Tue 13), Antrim (Wed 14), Armagh (Thu 15), Derry (Sat 17), Downpatrick (Wed 21), Coleraine (Thu 22), Strabane (Fri 23) and Lisburn (Sat 24).

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