Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Chronicles of Long Kesh

Martin Lynch
Studio, Waterfront Hall, Belfast, and touring
(2009)

The cast

The Arts Council of Northern Ireland - when directed by the acclaimed painter Brian Ferran, the current Ireland Professor of Poetry Michael Longley and Ciaran Carson now Professor of Poetry at Queen’s University’s Seamus Heaney Centre of Poetry - funded and promoted art for culture’s sake.

The reconstituted Council, managed mostly by career administrators, politically correctly devotes its time and money to taking culture those it sees as previously excluded. But it has been beaten at its own game by populist playwrights Martin Lynch and Marie Jones, co-founders of the Charabanc Theatre Company.

For between them Jones, with A Night in November and Women on the Edge of HRT, and Lynch with The Stone Chair, Dockers, The Interrogation of Ambrose Fogarty, Holding Hands at Paschendale and The History of The Troubles (accordin’ to me da), have done more than a thousand consultants’ expensive strategies to bring what used to be called ‘the working classes’ into the theatre.

Lynch, who wears his man o’ the people badge with an engaging - and occasionally combative - pride and passion, has had his misguided missions, namely a misjudged Belfast Carmen and the truly dreadful Mickey Rourke/Liam Neeson tosh-terror movie A Prayer for the Dying. But his latest wok, with the self-defining title Chronicles of Long Kesh, is not one of them.

Taking its own temperature as much from a diverting blend of The Producers, Oh! What A Lovely War and Borstal Boy’s influence on Porridge as from Lynch’s own predecessors, the Belfast dockland playwrights Sam Thomson and Thomas Carnduff, Chronicles’ barbed script, its physical-theatre co-director Lisa May, its cool muscial director Paul Boyd, its minimalist setting by David Craig and its energetic cast, all combine to deliver a production of winning images, rough macho jokes and observations gained from interviewing ex-prisoners.

Set in Long Kesh, the fog-shrouded Long Meadow of the title which evolved from RAF base to insurgents’ prison, it borrows Smokey Robinson’s Motown anthems to replace Broadway’s tinsels and musical hall’s plangent chauvinisms as the show’s leitmotif. Sung powerfully by Marty Maguire’s Oscar, a Republican whose seemingly boundless charisma will be dulled to dust by the dying of the hunger strikers, the melodies’ emotive punch deflects, temporarily, any audience questions as to whether they really should be laughing with, or even at, the plight of mass murderers.

Diminutive Billy Clarke plays diminutive Freddie, the decent ineffectual Protestant jailer who becomes our MC in an excursion which sees him rescued from alcoholism by the Bible’s texts. Marc O’Shea, short too of stature, reprises with perfect timing two generic roles he’s so used to, as, alternatively, least brightest spark, and sadistic enforcer . Andy Moore charms as the laid-back Hank, the Protestant Dylan-quoting dope-head who will rise to be OC of his prison wing, but will never reach his Nirvana of Haight Ashbury. Chris Corrigan is appropriately magnetic as Eamon, the bearded lecturer who will be the only one to profit from Long Kesh, becoming, lo and behold, a Northern (but not an All) Ireland Member of Parliament. Last, but certainly not least, there’s Laine Megaw who plays a weep of suffering wives, plus - intriguingly for those reading Lynch’s often tongue-in-cheeky tale as a roman à clef - the brutal, coke-sniffing bisexual peacock of a downed UDA brigadier.

Vibrant and provocative, like the author himself, Chronicles is not quite a threnody for Long Kesh. For, while it deals with the grim facts of Dirty Protest and Hunger Strike, it will offend many by its studious avoidance of moral debate on the ethics of murdering policemen, bombing civilians, informers, inmate homosexuality or prisoner-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-guard violence.

However, that said, while Long Kesh’s fate is otherwise to be left as a site for grant-aided academic photographers, a museum of inevitably biased memories, a multi-sports stadium or, heaven forfend, an out-of-town shopping centre, Chronicles of Long Kesh’s musical faux-docu-drama will stand as much more the preferable memorial.

Its programme notes complimented by poems by Moyra Donaldson and Gearoid Mac Lochlainn, and a foyer enlivened with interpretative paintings by Raymond Henshaw, Chronicles plays The Studio, Belfast’s Waterfront Hall till January 31, Market Place Theatre Armagh Feb 3rd, Burnavon Arts Centre Cookstown Feb 4th and Omagh’s Strule Arts Centre Feb 5th

This production was also reviewed by Howard Loxton at the Tricycle, Kilburn.

Reviewer: Ian Hill