Freedom of the City

Brian Friel
Finborough Theatre

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This is Brian Friel year in London. Plays both new and old have graced stages across the city and The Home Place has just been awarded Best New Play by the Evening Standard.

Freedom of the City sees the playwright in political mode some thirty years ago. It unashamedly takes sides in the Irish conflict, exploring issues similar to those covered by The Tricycle's Bloody Sunday.

In February 1970, following a peaceful but illegal demonstration in (London)Derry, three of the protesters sought cover in the nearest building while blinded by CS gas.

As luck would have it, they end up in The Guildhall, holed up in the Mayor's Chamber, nicely imagined by designer Anna Jones. Once there, they are trapped by the army and police, who apparently believe that they have dozens of terrorists under siege.

The trio are ill-matched examples that could have been drawn from almost any society. Claire Cogan plays an impoverished mother of eleven, Nick Lee a bright but unemployed student-type and Richard Flood an eccentric who could easily have doubled as a stand-up comedian. Their banter has parallels with that of the prisoners in Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, so successfully revived by Dominic Dromgoole earlier in the year.

The difference here is that all three shout their lines as if still on the protest march. This would have been more appropriate in a theatre ten times the size of the Finborough and eliminates much of the subtlety of the writing.

There was a further problem on opening night as the cast appeared to be seriously under-rehearsed and, at various times, most had a struggle to deliver their lines fluently.

While the ill-matched crew are awaiting their escape, we see the impressive John Hart Dyke's very grave Judge leading the enquiry into their deaths. As with Bloody Sunday, he comes down to one key question - Who fired first.

The Judge interrogates army and police officers who give a uniform, whitewash story. A political priest and a photographer may well have known better but their testimony is only delivered as hearsay.

This is a fine, brave political play that combines critical comment about the British occupiers of the city with a look at the poverty of the residents. The latter is explained in sociological terms by a tediously worthy American professor, played by Matthew Hendrickson.

Any revival of a Friel play is worth watching and, while this may not be his very best and the production requires extra work, it deserves to be seen as a stark reminder of what could easily happen again in Northern Ireland.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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