Friday, June 14, 2019

A Night in November – an amazing evening of theatre not to be forgotten (Lyric Theatre until 21 June + NI tour)

The 25th anniversary production of A Night to Remember is a remarkable piece of theatre. Marie Jones’ 1994 script captures the internal battle as dole clerk Kenneth Norman McCallister wakes up to the sectarian hatred and discrimination which he has been part of and begins to question the shaky foundations of his Protestant identity.

While it’s a Troubles play, Jones doesn’t engineer the audience to laugh along with the sectarian behaviour. At least not the way her son Matthew McElhinney expertly directs the play. Nor does she turn it into a pity party. A Night to Remember is about getting under the skin of Belfast residents of the 1990s and understanding their motivations.

The intelligent script is brought to life by Matthew Forsythe who owns the stage as Kenneth from start to finish, while weaving in and out of everyone else he encounters and talks to along his journey. Multi-roling is more and more common in plays, but this is a level above what’s normally seen. Rehearsals must have been like a brutal boot camp in order to drill such sharp yet nuanced shifts of stance and demeanour into the performance. But the work and attention to detail has paid off. Veterans of Mydidae will smile in the second half as Forsythe bashfully makes a quick change!

The first half – nearly a complete play in itself – sees Kenneth accompany his father-in-law to the Republic of Ireland vs Northern Ireland qualifying game in Windsor Park. The behaviour of the NI fans audibly upsets some in the theatre audience, with tuts and gasps to be heard above the chanting and racist impersonations on stage. But Kenneth’s reaction and revulsion puts this horror in context.

After the interval, the pace intensifies with an explosive dinner party and another football match, as Kenneth breaks free from the traditions and conduct with which he is longer happy to abide. The emotional crunch near the end is very moving as the euphoric bubble of victory is burst with the news of a murderous attack back home (dovetailing in with an excellent documentary film).

Garth McConaghie’s soundscape envelops the stage. The domestic sound of a vacuum cleaner is warm and rich and allowed to fill the whole space much like the roar of the crowd in Windsor Park. Together with Conleth White’s lighting design and Chris Hunter’s mirrored set, these elements enhance the acting.

While by no means conclusive or certain, recent election results suggest that a portion of the Northern Ireland electorate have shifted in how they want to express their politics. It feels very apt to watch Kenneth break free from his old habits and explore new and very unexpected ways of expressing his identity and his aspirations, albeit dressed up as some sort of mid-life crisis that allows him to abandon home and work without telling anyone. Watching A Night in November brings home the distance we have travelled, while underscoring how many old suspicions and tensions and chants (on and off the field) remain just under the radar.

If a show ever deserved a standing ovation – which Belfast audiences tend to hand out at the drop of a hat – then the combination of Marie Jones’ writing, Matthew Forsythe’s acting and Matthew McElhinney’s direction merit long applause for a very special piece of live theatre that captivates and engages throughout.

Playing in the Lyric Theatre until 21 June, Soda Bread Theatre are taking the show out on the road and visiting Bangor, West Belfast, East Belfast, Newcastle, Limavady, Mullingar, Ballymena, Enniskillen, Cushendall, Armagh, Newtownabbey, Lisburn, Coalisland, Monaghan, Antrim and Derry in August and September.

Photo: Chris Hunter

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