On McQuillan’s Hill

Joseph Crilly
Doreen Productions in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre
Finborough Theatre, Earl's Court

Johnny Vivash and Kevin Murphy Credit: Bronwen Sharp
Julie Maguire and Declan Rodgers Credit: Bronwen Sharp
Gina Costigan Credit: Bronwen Sharp

This play, set in rural Ulster in 1999, harks back to the days of The Troubles but is as much a domestic drama as an investigation of Northern Irish politics.

On McQuillan’s Hill contains some elements that would not look out of place in a Greek tragedy but might more closely be related to or influenced by the works of playwrights such as Martin McDonagh, although the action is located on the other side of the inflammatory Irish border.

The plotting complexities are manifold, meaning that it can be difficult to follow every trail, especially given strong, authentic accents that require concentration by those with London-bred ears.

The central figure is malign Fra Maline, a Republican played by Johnny Vivash, who has recently been the beneficiary of the prisoner release scheme, intended to aid reconciliation between the country’s warring sectarian factions. A self-proclaimed hero, Fra has many hidden depths, not to mention a host of family members, almost every one of whom is a bad penny.

Fra’s return to his hometown of Gentry causes ructions for a number of reasons. First, Julie Maguire as his insecure but relatively well-adjusted 21-year-old daughter Teresa wishes to interrogate the bearded freedom fighter about the identity of her mother. Next, Gina Costigan in the role of his sister Loretta wishes to make a new start after decades in London and, to that end, has bought the dilapidated but potentially grand local hall.

To complicate matters, seduced by his blarney, she has recruited a former Provisional IRA officer with historical connections to the returning warrior, Declan Rodgers’s confident Ray, for dual duties as handyman and lover.

If all of that wasn’t enough, Kevin Murphy plays Protestant Dessie, a father of two but also involved in a long-term homosexual relationship, while Helena Bereen reprises her performance as local busybody Mrs Tymelly having created the role in the original production at the Lyric Belfast 20 years ago.

In just over two hours, Joseph Crilly has no compunctions about allowing his characters massive mood swings and introducing plot twists galore in an effort to entertain and amuse. At the same time, he does succeed in getting under the skins of a number of the central figures, creating rounded human beings but also placing them firmly in the centre of Northern Ireland’s troubled history.

While On McQuillan’s Hill may overstretch its resources to a degree, this is still a worthy revival under the direction of Jonathan Harden, successfully portraying an era that still resonates in the political climate on the far side of the Irish Sea today.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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