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A Reason to Believe

Robert Niblock
Produced by Epic
Spectrum Centre, Belfast, and touring
(2009)

Publicity photo

Ex-Loyalist paramilitary killer Robert ‘Beano’ Niblock packed the Spectrum Community Centre on Belfast’s working-class Protestant Shankill Road with his first play, A Reason to Believe, an affectionate portrait of fellow old lags, Geordie and Hector, two of those familiars of satirical literature, the incompetent foot-soldiery of war, bickering through their last weeks at death’s door.

Stuffed with blackly ironic streetwise humour - where Manchester United’s famous goalkeeper Harry Gregg is rhyming slang for a ‘feg’ or cigarette - Niblock’s short (75 minutes) five-episode drama has been a controversial success while playing, as it were, the other side of the street, at the Republican-inspired Féile an Phobail, the People’s Festival, in Catholic West Belfast.

Troubles dramas have so far been dominated mostly by rosy Republican memories of the struggle against the Brits emboldened by emotive anthems, Niblock’s - and Hector’s - music is from the early LPs of Rod Stewart, in particular Unplugged, from which he takes Tim Hardin’s song as his title.

Picking up the baton from Martin Lynch’s hilariously popular anti-sectarian, antiwar comedy The History of the Troubles Accordin’ to Me Da, Niblock offers us two hospitalished 50-plus yearold ex-residents of her Majesty’s Prison Long Kesh. The first is the articulate avuncular onetime binman Hector as portrayed by real life seasoned television reporter ‘Big’ Ivan Little (who played the catalyst in THOTTATMD). The second is the ever work-shy Geordie, rendered here with style by Niall Cusack, an accomplished and versatile Ulster character actor.

The author’s other influences may be cited as Laurel and Hardy, Only Fools and Horses, The Odd Couple and - more distantly - Graham Reid’s television Billy plays which first articulated the Protestant working voice to a mass audience.

Beano’s message is that there should be, post-Troubles, few past heroes for the young to look up: peace is best. For though Belfast has indeed benefited from the Peace Process, deprived areas on either side of the vast Peace Fences are far from free from sectarian, protection-racket and drug-related violence.

The five short acts take us from designer David Craig’s effectively simple settings of hospital ward, to widower’s front parlour and then - courtesy of Northern Visions TV’s deft black and white film clip shot through a horizontal grid which echoes both police identity line up and a bank’s public area - a bank, before we return to the dying ward. For our unlikely heroes have by then set out on an improbable bank heist to brighten up their dying hours.

Director Frankie McCafferty, best known for his own eclectic character roles, plus experienced community drama producer Jo Egan, have devised an upbeat entertainment which makes full use of its experienced cast who in turn make light of the dying of the light as the script skates deftly over the shortcomings inherent in the author’s short-storyish finale.

But a bigger issue remains. As producer Egan surely contemplates touring the play outside Belfast, should audiences accede to current propagandas which would re-write history and have us recall the horrific violence of 30 years of the Troubles solely through the whimseys of Dad’s Armies of loveable rogues?

Reviewer: Ian Hill