sat 04/07/2020

On McQuillan's Hill, Finborough Theatre review - timely glance at Northern Irish myths and tensions | reviews, news & interviews

On McQuillan's Hill, Finborough Theatre review - timely glance at Northern Irish myths and tensions

On McQuillan's Hill, Finborough Theatre review - timely glance at Northern Irish myths and tensions

Joe Crilly believed in skewering the romance surrounding sectarian violence

Reigniting an explosive past: Johnny Vivash and Kevin MurphyBronwen Sharp

The news that the Continuity IRA created a bomb destined for England on Brexit Day has added to the timeliness of this revival of Joseph Crilly’s gut-punching comedy. Set in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement, it takes a merciless glance at the myths and delusions surrounding small-town Northern Ireland, which are exposed in painful detail following the release of former IRA terrorist, Fra Maline, from prison.

One of the most striking aspects of Irish drama is the way in which landscapes and buildings are so strongly steeped in the memories of the lives and conflicts that have played out against them. Whether it’s the energies stirred up by the renaming of places in Brian Friel’s Translations or a pub in a Conor McPherson play, haunted by the stories told there over the years, that sense of the backdrop as witness is a frequent and potent part of the dramatic tension.

That’s very much the case here as we watch a series of encounters in a community hall on the eponymous McQuillan’s Hill. It’s a hall that has seen pretty much everything from secret sexual trysts to brawls: when the vast majority of the characters in the play walk into it, they are assailed by memories of their younger selves along with actions for which they must still carry the consequences. 

Initially there’s a faint whiff of the formulaic as the characters introduce themselves, appearing two at a time to discuss what’s happening in the days over which the action unfolds. But then both the humour and the arrow-sharp directness of Crilly’s dialogue start to kick in. Gina Costigan (pictured below) and Declan Rodgers quickly strike sparks as Loretta, who has returned from a two-decade absence in London after buying the hall, and Ray, her predatory ex, a handyman who she has asked to help renovate it. So too do Johnny Vivash’s charismatic drunk, Fra Maline, and Kevin Murphy’s shiny-suited store department manager, Dessie, as they reignite the closeted gay love affair that has clearly been an emotional mainstay for both of them.

Like Martin McDonagh, Crilly believed in skewering the romance surrounding sectarian violence, refusing to portray victims and martyrs, and instead revealing a world in which everyone is a mess of contradictions. One of the central tensions in the play is the search for who the mother of Julie Maguire’s simultaneously tough and vulnerable 21-year old Theresa is: as the answer slowly detonates, it calls into question a whole range of other assumptions, blasting any complacency or prejudice to pieces.

This is the first time On McQuillan’s Hill has been performed outside Ireland. It is also the first time it has been performed since Crilly tragically committed suicide in 2017 because of clinical depression. Director Jonathan Harden, himself from Northern Ireland, sets a pace that at first feels a little too slow and steady. Yet the emotional truth of the performances that he encourages starts to burn through, and by the second half of the evening, we feel the full heat of each revelation.  

Norman Coates’s lovingly scuzzy design compellingly adapts the Finborough so that it feels that we are all compressed into the same community hall, watching out nervously through the dirty windows to see who will next arrive. Every detail – from the type of beer cans scattered on the floor to the notices on the hall board – tells the story of a community in which the tragedies and comedies are played out against a backdrop of economic deprivation.  

In a play distinguished, not least, by its strong female characters (including Helena Bereen’s entertaining busybody, Mrs Tymelly) it is Gina Costigan’s Loretta who particularly shines. As we lurch into a new chapter of altercations between England and Ireland, the loss of Crilly is to be mourned. It takes a particular talent to make you leave the theatre feeling simultaneously shell-shocked and amused. There’s little doubt his voice would have had no shortage of contributions to make over the next few months and years. 

It takes a particular talent to make you feel simultaneously shell-shocked and amused

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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