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Over the Bridge

Sam Thompson
Finborough Theatre

Over the Bridge

The Finborough regularly stages Irish plays and this is one of the best.

A Catholic and a trade union leader are murdered by a mob. The workers do nothing to stop it and walk away; as if the horror has nothing to do with them. The play, written in the 1950s, is an indictment of the trade unions for failing to deal with sectarian bigotry and violence in the workplace.

Over the Bridge is set in the Belfast Shipyard in the 1950s when the IRA Border Campaign was at its height. There is nothing civilised about a mob, Catholic or Protestant. The play, prophetic of the Troubles to come and a plea for religious toleration, was written from experience. The author, Sam Thompson (1916-1965), was a dockyard painter, shop steward and trade union activist.

The production was in rehearsal at the Ulster Group Theatre in Belfast in April 1959 when the theatre’s Board of Directors stopped the play from going ahead, fearing there would be riots of the kind which had greeted the premières of Synge and O’Casey earlier in the century.

The artistic director, James Ellis, and many of the actors resigned to form their own independent company. The play opened at the Empire Theatre, Belfast, in January 1960 with a cast which included J G Devlin, Joseph Tomelty and Harry Towb.

There were no riots. It was a huge success, playing to capacity houses of 44,000 in a six week run and then went on a tour, which ended in London at Princes Theatre, theatreland’s graveyard, where it failed to find an audience. The Ulster accent was virtually incomprehensible. Over the Bridge hasn’t been seen in London since.

Emma Faulkner’s production has an authentic documentary feel and is totally involving. The cast, a fine ensemble, is headed by Robert Calvert as the Union’s father-figure (a role created by Tomelty and played by Finlay Currie on television) and includes Sean O’Callaghan as the trade unionist who sticks to the rules, Chris Robinson as a shop steward, Michael Neilson as a worker who thinks only of himself and Lawrence McGrandles as an icy thug.

Over the Bridge is a major Irish play and deserves a longer run. This production is playing only on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesday matinées, a total of nine performances. What the West End needs is a small theatre to which fringe productions of this calibre can transfer.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch