The Swell Mob, COLAB theatre, SE1

Fun if fragmented production that immerses you in the seedy side of Victorian London 

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The Swell Mob cast a the COLAB theatre (c) Jordan Chandler

Flabbergast Theatre have transformed the COLAB theatre, a dimly-lit space along the dusty stretch between Borough and Elephant and Castle, into a sleazy Victorian saloon where gambling, bare-knuckle fighting and dubious employment rights reign supreme. Overseeing all this is the evil master – a puppet with an air of Voldemort before all those Horcruxes – whose dodgy dealings we are here to unmask.

Or at least, I think that’s what we’re here for. Each visit to The Swell Mob is different, the journey you take will depend on the questions you ask, the rooms you dare enter and the tasks you are given by the actors. But whichever route you take, you will be immersed in a world soaked in menace, your (pretend) money lost to the card table or a dodgy bet on the boxing; your courage tested down badly-lit corridors and manically grinning Mozarts.

The idea of The Swell Mob is to get stuck in – the more questions you ask the more information you’ll gather, and knowledge inside this gloomy den of iniquity is even better currency than the coins you’re handed at the beginning. There are riddles to be solved, dark corners to explore and plenty of clues lying in plain sight.

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Gamble away your money at the Swell Mob’s card table (c) Jordan Chandler

And Swell Mob is certainly fun and hugely atmospheric, the seemingly floating, ghostly head that greets us at the door setting the tone for an afternoon that relies on ambience over narrative.

As a piece of theatre, the production doesn’t quite tie together – it’s more a series of set pieces that rely too heavily on the audience to drive a story we’re not given enough backstory to invest in.

But while it lacks direction and a definitive goal, Swell Mob is enjoyable and imaginative. Go see it to be immersed in its gothic charm and cast of crazy characters – just shake off any inhibitions and follow the chaos.

The Swell Mob | COLAB theatre | until June 30 2019

Theatre review: The Chess Player, OSO Arts Centre

An emotionally charged one-hander that follows one man’s bid to survive in the hardest of circumstances

Richard McElvain in the Chess Player, interpretation of the story is all the more disturbing in a world where the Far Right is once again raising its head.

Richard McElvain in the Chess Player, interpretation of the story is all the more disturbing in a world where the Far Right is once again raising its head.

 

Based on Jewish Austrian author Stefan Zweig’s novella, The Chess Player follows a prisoner in a Nazi jail struggling to stay sane while shut away in solitary confinement with no books, cigarettes or conversation.

His unlikely lifebuoy comes in the form of a stolen chess book allows him to lose himself memorising the many outcomes of a chess game. Despite never having played a game of chess, has the prisoner become the best player of all time?

His chance to test his skills comes after he escapes his captures and en route to safety in Buenos Aires finds himself in the middle of a chess tournament featuring the great chess masterminds.

Despite the mind soothing power of chess and his new found freedom, the prisoner remains hovering on the brink of madness. Will he survive a game against the greatest player of all time? Or will it trigger a descent into a darkness that there will be no escape from?

Written, performed and director by Richard McElvain who takes on all the roles with great zeal and emotion, breaking the fourth wall at times by placing himself in the story and interacting with the audience and occasionally with Larry Buckley whose sound and light production brings a further edge to the production.

The back-and-forth between McElvain’s characters serves to heightened the madness and claustrophobia of a man who escapes one prison only to find himself trapped in his own mind. The final chess game reaches an intense climax of insanity that leads to two choose-your-own-adventure style endings, one based on Zweig’s own death from suicide and another playing out the novella’s original conclusion.

Post-curtain call Elvain explains the show is about theatre and art, how it means nothing and everything at the same time. Art lifts us and holds a mirror to us and the world we live in. Without it, we are the like the prisoner in his cell, clinging onto an emptiness with no purpose.

The Chess Player | OSO Arts Centre, SW13 | Until May 26 2018

Dance review: Macbeth, Wilton’s Music Hall

A haunting, gripping dance adaptation of Shakespeare’s sinister masterpiece

Jonathan Goddard and Eleanor Duval as the Macbeths

Jonathan Goddard and Eleanor Duval as the Macbeths.

Dancing to Shakespeare may sound a bit like dancing to architecture, to (badly) paraphrase a famous phrase, but in the hands of the fantastic Mark Bruce Company, one of the bard’s greatest – and bloodiest – plays becomes a piece of absorbing and captivating art in its own right.

Macbeth lends itself well to dance, the inner turmoil of a man and his wife willing to commit regicide to be king and queen of Scotland, create an energy that is both powerful yet intimate. Unearthing the hidden meaning behind what drives this ambitious couple to commit murder in order to get their bloody hands on the crown has long fascinated directors, and in this production their angst, greed and lust for power. and their subsequent all-consuming guilt, seems even more stark.

From gentle beginnings grows a performance of great drama and passion. Bold, clever lighting washes the stage in blood-red and casts a banquet in stunning aspic, while well-placed symbols create a brooding atmosphere as the score – largely comprised of Arvo Pärt’s multi-layered music – enhances without smothering. But as sharp as the visual spectacle is, it’s the power of the dance that brings Shakespeare’s words to life.

The choreography is wonderfully realised, with every hand gesture and head turn revealing the characters’ passion and emotions. Shakespeare’s big scenes are all there: there’s the dagger and Lady Macbeth’s hand-wringing; a sinister reactment of the witches’ prophesy of Banquo’s descendants long rule over Scotland, and the banquet scene where the murdered Banquo haunts Macbeth with a terrifying intensity.

Jonathan Goddard as the titular character reveals Macbeth’s ruthlessness alongside a vulnerability – this is a man who seems aghast at his own capacity for murder, astonished at his lust for power. But, as with so many Macbeths, it’s Lady Macbeth who draws the eye. Eleanor Duval is wonderful in the role, a hugely captivating dancer who conveys the character’s steely-eyed ambition and her descent into madness with an incredible force, recreating Shakespeare’s words with compelling charisma. Together the two dancers are beguiling and compelling – this is a couple who are destined to rule.

Mark Bruce Company’s Macbeth | Wilton’s Music Hall | Until 17 March 2018

 

 

 

 

Theatre review: Reunion and Dark Pony, John Harvard Library, SE1

Celebrate Libraries Week (9 – 14 October) with sombre, but touching father/daughter dynamics 

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David Schaal and Siu-see Hung in Dark Pony

Public libraries have always been about more than books. They have laid at the heart of many communities since their inception, designed to inspire, educate, engage and thrill. In recent years, they have become increasingly squeezed and compromised as budgets are slashed and their role questioned. So what better way to celebrate Libraries Week than show what they can be and turn these silent spaces into a stage. After all, libraries and theatres share the same currency: stories.

Baseless Fabric Theatre are a site-specific theatre and opera company that create work in public spaces to encourage people to see art forms and their local public spaces in new ways. As part of National Libraries Week, they have chosen two David ‘American Buffalo’ Mamet short plays (at seven minutes, Dark Pony is a slip of a piece), both sparse enough to lend themselves well to the space between the bookshelves (it helps that John Harvard Library has a coffee shop where Reunion, the night’s first performance, takes place).

The American playwright and scriptwriter is firmly in Richard Ford and Richard Yates territory where the all-American family is revealed to be less picket fence, more prison wall. Reunion, Mamet’s 1976 two-hander features a meeting between a father and his daughter, now (unhappily) married and a step-mother, who have been separated for nearly a lifetime. Through Mamet’s hyper-realistic dialogue that is both awkward yet precise, even lyrical at times, the characters’ attempt to find those lost years. Bernie, a reformed alcoholic, has largely found peace with himself, contemplating a third marriage and content with his job in a restaurant kitchen. He dominates the meeting, explaining his life and his mistakes through some amusing anecdotes. His daughter struggles more under the weight of his absence, her future also promising little. But while they may not walk off into the sunset, the pair do find some kind of equilibrium between the past and the present.

Dark Pony is a bitesized sketch where a father tells a favourite bedtime story to his young daughter as they drive home late at night – the story of a young native American brave and his trusty horse, Dark Pony. It’s sweet, although so fleeting it doesn’t have time to crawl under your skin.

David Schaal as Bernie and the book-reading father captures the right kind of wide-eyed intensity, reeling from his hard life and the mistakes he’s made, desperate for a fresh start. And you can almost hear Siu-see Hung’s (Carol and the young daughter) internal struggle, as she tries to find the words to put her life into focus.

Reunion and Dark Pony | Various library locations in London | Until 15 October 2018

 

 

 

 

 

Theatre review: The Divine Comedy, Barons Court Theatre

An impressive re-telling of an allegorical journey through sin and salvation.

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Alex Chard as Dante in So It Goes Theatre’s retelling of Dante’s Divine Comedy

There’s something fitting about hell being represented in a dank basement, with a pub (so often a heavenly respite) above us. Purgatory? Let that be the ramshackly awkward pre-curtain queue that wound up the stairs sending theatre goers into the path of diners and waiters.

Douglas Baker’s adaptation of Dante’s three-part journey through hell, purgatory and paradise is both ambitious and low-key. It takes the 14th century poet’s mammoth text and reduces it to a whirlwind 90-minute production, compressing  the main themes into a zippy, but no less powerful play.

The play is brought into the 21st century, a risky move that works despite the juxtaposition ofLatin poet Virgil in a Harrington jacket talking about sin and salvation and somehow God being the biggest character in this drama doesn’t seem anachronistic. 

We meet Dante – a character is his own poem – as he’s about to throw himself off a bridge in despair at the death of his lover. But his attempt is scuppered when Virgil, sent by the very woman he is grieving, turns up with a very persuasive case not to jump: a tour of hell, destined to be Dante’s abode for eternity should his suicide attempt work. 

In the original poem, Dante’s saviour, Beatrice is a mysterious woman whose identity remains a puzzle for scholars, but whose presence grounds the poem. In this production, her ambiguity is stripped away and she is positioned firmly as Dante’s dead lover.  

Oddly, while the pace of this production is brisk, Beatrice’s glacial arrival in beige heaven rather stalls the play. Despite Kathryn Taylor-Gears‘s calm, assured and thoughtful performance, the momentum sags as she argues with Dante to reconsider his faith before contemplating a jump into the afterlife.

The atmosphere in the Barons Court Theatre  is naturally claustrophobic and menacing, but the lighting and projections ramp up the tension.  While the moments of physical theatre movement director Matt Coulton introduces help to sustain the momentum and inject some energy.

The Divine Comedy is no Fawlty Towers in the laugh department, but there are some moments of wit in this production. The tube as purgatory is amusing – although during a heatwave, the Central line can feel more like hell.

The cast are all excellent, the all-female chorus (Sofia Greenacre, Marialuisa Ferro, Sophia Speakman and Michaela Mackenzie) bring a haunting aura in their various stages in the afterlife, while Alex Chard is captivating and assured as a baby-faced Dante.

An original and creative production that stokes the fire of Dante’s poem with flair and invention.

The Divine Comedy | Barons Court Theatre | Until 30 September 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: The Children Act by Ian McEwan

The Children Act by Ian McEwan (published by Jonathan Cape)

The Children Act by Ian McEwan (published by Jonathan Cape)

There are times during The Children Act when Ian McEwan seemed to be trying to out Ian McEwan himself, such was his commitment to imagining his now familiar to the-point-of-parody urban middle class life. There are a whole heap of McEwanisms in this, his 13th novel. Here he is writing about a Saturday morning in his protagonist Fiona Maye’s house, where the coffee is: “strong, in tall white thin-lipped cups, filtered from high-grade Colombian beans, with warmed, not hot milk” accompanied by “warmed pains aux raisins from Lamb’s Conduit Street”.

It all sounds blissfully lovely and yet we all know high grade coffee beans can’t buy you happiness, especially in an Ian McEwan books where a luxurious lifestyle masks simmering violence, cruelty and malice. But still, an Ian McEwan drinking game would be a dangerous activity; downing a shot of fine Scotch every time the author mentioned warm pastries, marbled kitchen surfaces, Bach, the fine cut of the protagonist’s coat, would render you incapable of reading beyond page 50.

I mock out of love, although perhaps rather more for McEwan’s back catalogue than this novel that feels strangely incomplete and slight – and not just in size. It’s a short, sharp novel written in McEwan’s trademark briskness that teeters on the brink of something great, but never quite reaches the heights of his other novels.

The Children Act takes us back to the McEwan land of Saturday. This time the wildly successful middle class professional who has the sharp edges of their intellect and ambition smoothed by an enjoyment of the arts (especially classical music) and an evening glass of fine wine is High Court judge, Fiona Maye.

Fiona works in the family division, playing the referee between warring parents in custody battles and hospitals desperate to save children with treatment their parents’ religions forbid them to use. Her latest case is a matter of urgency; Adam Henry, a 17 year-old boy – months from his 18th birthday – is suffering with leukaemia and needs a blood transfusion to help save his life. He is – just – too young to make the decision himself and his Jehovah’s Witness parents won’t give their consent to a procedure that is against the religion’s doctrine. Wobbling on the cusp of a decision, Fiona visits Adam to try to fully understand him and his wishes. Overseen by a social worker, their meeting over Adam’s hospital bed, ends with him playing Benjamin Britten’s composition of the Yeats’ poem, ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ scratchily on his violin while she sings the mournful lyrics.

Adam is a sad, troubled figure – a bright, intelligent boy with a man’s brain and a child’s enthusiasm that blurs into naivety. Through Fiona’s eyes he is described as beautiful, but I don’t think it’s so much his physical beauty she sees, but his vulnerability, his youth, his future.

Fiona Maye is a likable and compelling character. She’s controlled and impenetrable in many ways, but McEwan allows a warmth to emanate from her that is mostly told through her love of music (classical) and poetry (Yeats). McEwan can conjure characters in few words, and you can almost hear the bristle of Fiona’s natural sheer tights as she walks purposely through Gray’s Inn Square, briefcase in hand.

Bubbling away behind her courtroom dramas, is her own drama. Fiona Maye is – and we’re encouraged to believe this is important in the context of her job – childless and until five minutes before the novel begins in a seemingly happy marriage to Jack. The novel opens with Jack telling her that he wants to have one last fling, his chosen accomplice a 28-year-old statistician with whom he works. His demands are appalling and his behaviour worse, even walking out the door with his suitcase without saying goodbye to his wife. That he comes crawling back is no surprise, although I’d have rather Fiona kneed him in the groin rather than merely offering him her frosty shoulder. But the description of the sad dance the two of them do after his return is typically vivid in that brilliant way McEwan has of writing about the tiny sadnesses that infect our lives.

The legal cases, however, are far more gripping even if McEwan has to frantically shift many plot pawns into position in order to get his checkmate ending. It’s not that the ending feels wrong, but it falls rather flat after a frantic build up that seemed to point to a high-voltage conclusion. Perhaps it’s better this way (see Amsterdam for evidence of McEwan pressing the atomic ending button), but I felt as if I’d barely got to know Fiona and Adam in this slight story that didn’t quite allow either of them to capture my imagination.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book review:  Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life by Nina Stibbe

Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe published by Viking

Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe published by Viking

This year’s literary hit, the much celebrated Love, Nina is a book worth all its plaudits. It’s a wonderfully heart-warming book with a rapier-sharp wit that cuts through any smugness, a potential hazard in a book where it’s normal for Alan Bennett to pop round for tea and people sprout ancient Egyptian when discussing a dog hanging out by the bins.

The Nina of the title moved to 55 Gloucester Crescent, NW1 from Leicestershire in 1982 to work as a nanny to Sam and Will Frears. Their mother, Mary-Kay (MK) Wilmers was deputy editor of the London Review of Books; their father director Stephen Frears (the couple were divorced and Frears has only a cameo in Love, Nina). Alan Bennett (AB) lived across the road and would often pop round for dubious sounding 80s suppers. Inspired by her booky surroundings, Nina goes on to study for an English A Level while minding S&W and later enrols at Thames Poly, but she’s still a regular visitor at 55 (she even ends up moving back into the nanny quarters, even when she’s no longer the nanny).

Love, Nina is a sharp and witty book of letters that she wrote to her Leicester-living, London-hating sister Vic. They are full of wonderfully witty observations detailing the everyday domestic dramas of her adopted family. Written like a script in progress, the letters often contain snippets of the day’s conversations at 55. The Frears/Wilmers family (+ Bennett) are a bright, liberal bunch and their supper chat reflects this – not that they discuss Goethe over dinner (it’s more likely to be the humming fridge), but there’s a captivating and charming intelligence even in their most banal chat.

This is a delightful book that shimmers with humour and warmth, showing a microcosm of brainy north London in a breezy series of incidents on Gloucester Crescent, a place where it’s routine to borrow saws from Jonathan Miller, and Shirley ‘Lace’ Conran annoys the neighbours with her dodgy burglar alarm. This is a world where the f-bomb is dropped over dinner as casually as discussing the right way to cook new potatoes (do not mash). Nina is an engaging writer and her ear for dialogue enables her to pick out the humour from the smallest of events (mislaying Jonathan Miller’s saw, AB fixing the fridge).

Love, Nina  makes you wish that you sitting around MK’s kitchen (MK sounds terrifying, but brilliant) eating badly cooked tarragon chicken, discussing the strange sexual preferences of Nina’s fellow students with AB (not with him, to him) while also inspiring you to re-read Chaucer (despite Nina finding it as frustrating as I did when I read it for my A Level).

A truly joyous book, read it on the bus at your peril.

by Suzanne Elliott  

Book Review: Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue

Slammerkin by Emma Donaghue

Slammerkin by Emma Donaghue

My first introduction to Emma Donoghue was her gem of a novel Room. A moving, mesmorising book, Room is the story of four-year-old Jack who is born in captivity, a product of his mother’s imprisonment and continued rape by an unnamed kidnapper.

Room is heartbreaking and majestic, Donoghue captures the bewildered four-year old’s voice so beautifully that Jack is as vivid a fictional character as you’ll find.

But I discovered that Room was a departure for Donoghue whose usual territory is the world of corsets, cobbles and carriages with a hefty dollop of historical scandal. Slammerkin pre-dates Room by nine years and is set in 18th century London and the then English town of Monmouth. It’s the sorry story of Mary Saunders, a girl born a few steps from the gutter on Charing Cross Road who soon rolls right into after being thrown out of her mother’s house.

Mary’s future never looked bright, but once homeless, it’s positively desolate. But then she meets Doll, a St Giles’ prostitute – straight out of the book of tarts with hearts – who literally picks her up off the street and teaches her survival in the crudest sense. But even she can’t protect Mary from the vagaries of London life and Mary is forced to flee to her mother’s hometown of Monmouth where she is taken in by her mum’s old friend Jane Jones and her husband Thomas. Jane is a dressmaker and Mary, who as a lady of the night in London knew the worth of fine clothes, soon develops a taste for beautiful fabrics and wonderfully crafted threads. Life is quiet in Welsh borders for a while, but Mary longs to be free in a world where lowly born women never were. Her lust for a life of freedom – and a beautiful clothes – ends in tragedy.

Slammerkin should be a rip-roaring read, it’s got all the elements of a gripping historical yarn. Based on a real life Mary Saunders, it’s got violence, lust, slurry strewn streets and dastardly men. But the story got sort of stuck in the mud of Charing Cross Road and while always threatening to take off, never seemed to come to life. My judgement probably isn’t fair – although I’ve now only come to realise  – as I’m not a great historical fiction fan. Novels set in the past written in contemporary times always seem so po-faced, while fiction of the time – Dickens, Austen et al  – are shot through with wit.

Slammerkin is no different. It’s relentlessly gloomy and dispiriting and strangely uneffecting despite the brutality and hardship. This isn’t polite historical fiction, Donaghue doesn’t flinch from the realities of working class life in Britain in pre-Welfare State days. There are some horrific scenes, particularly in Mary’s early days on the mean streets of 1760s London that made me recoil, but left me unmoved. Mary Saunders certainly isn’t unsympathetic, but she’s rather dull. I don’t buy the idea that you have to like characters in novels to enjoy a book, but a fictional companion has got to be good company and Mary frequently bored me, she seemed so lifeless for one who had led such an extraordinary life.

Donaghue is clearly a fine writer with an ear for dialogue and a way of conquering up vivid scenes with little fuss, but it’s her corset-less world that I’ll be sticking with.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: The Crucible, Old Vic

Richard Armitage as John Proctor in the Old Vic's The Crucible

Richard Armitage as John Proctor in the Old Vic’s The Crucible

Arthur Miller is having a bit of a moment on The Cut. Just as the gut-wrenching A View from the Bridge bows out in bloody fashion at The Young Vic, at the other end of the street, its more stately elder, The Old Vic reprises The Crucible, Miller’s tale of the Salem witch hunt.

The Crucible may just be my favourite Arthur Miller play. It’s a gem of a piece of drama – a cracking story with plenty of boo-hiss villains and honest country folk being merrily trampled by utterly nuts authority figures all told in Miller’s stylish dialogue. It’s dark and sinister, packed full of suffering, hypocrisy, bonnets and archaic speech (‘sit ye down’!).

A drama this good deserves a fantastic reprisal and this Old Vic Yaël Farber-directed production draws out the angst and the madness to deliver a play of brutal intensity.

The Crucible is, of course, Miller’s allegory for the McCarthy communist witch hunt in 1950s America, but even discounting this second layer the plot is a cracker. Nine months before the curtain rises to find Mary Warren rolling around on a bed, in the grips of a fever (which the locals have – easily – confused with being possessed by the devil) farmer John Proctor had an unfortunate rumble in the haybales with the family’s maid, Abigail Williams. While John and Abigail keep watch over the sick girl – not exactly the most romantic of situations – Abigail attempts to rekindle their former fling. Hurt by John’s rebuttal, Abigail, encouraged by her elders talk of the devil, seeks a revenge so deadly that it decimates the whole town of Salem. The rumours she starts legitimise the authorities to murder and these moralistic men are sent into increasing spirals of madness and power lust until the town of Salem lies derelict and smeared with the blood of its innocent population.

Incidentally, Salem in this production lies nearer to Manchester England than Massachusetts (a link to Lancashire’s own witch hunts?), which is probably more accurate considering it’s unlikely that these early settlers had already perfected an American accent in 1692.

John Proctor must be a fantastic role for an actor, he’s up there with Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes, crippled by a fatal flaw and only realising what he’s about to lose when it’s too late. Filling Proctor’s big clopping boots for this production is Spooks and Hobbit star Richard Armitage who is the big star draw here. Armitage has made a career of playing brooding, angst ridden men that never fall neatly on the side of either good or bad, and as Proctor he is called on to crank up the angst factor far beyond dwarf-range. If I were Yaël Farber I’d have him reign it in a little, especially towards the spine-tingling climax where the emotion gets a little lost in the shouting, but he gives a huge, powerful performance in what must be a taxing role both physically and emotionally.

As big a punch as Armitage gives, this is very much an ensemble piece with many fine performances. Fresh out stage school, Samantha Colley hugely impresses as Abigail Williams, Proctor and Salem’s downfall and one of literature’s great villains. Gosh Abigails’ bad – and so unrepentant! – and Colley plays her with that deflt innocence and malice that the part demands. In a cast of great depth, other standouts include Harry Attwell as Thomas Putnam, Anna Madeley as John’s long suffering wife Elizabeth and Jack Ellis as the ruthless Deputy Governor Danforth who could probably project his crystal clear diction across the river.

A few niggles: the Round (handily crucible shaped) may have many advantages, especially I should imagine if you’re on (in?) it, but the bowl-like shape of it means actors’ words can get a little lost in the stew of dialogue when you’re up in the Lilian Baylis. This was a preview I saw and I wouldn’t be surprise if they tightened the production up at little – at 3 hours 40 minutes you could fit two and a half performances of A View from the Bridge into it – and there were a few flabby scene-setting moments that look pretty but delivered little. That said, this is too good a production for you to notice how long you’ve been sat there (your knees may tell you otherwise).

Farber’s Crucible is pumped full of heart and passion (perhaps, at times, it cup runneth over with emotion) – and Miller’s great story is given a rapturous reprisal that’s almost matched in intensity by the ecstatic applause at the curtain call.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Quietly, Soho Theatre

Declan Conlon as Ian and Patrick O’Kane as Jimmy in Quietly at the Soho Theatre

Declan Conlon as Ian and Patrick O’Kane as Jimmy in Quietly at the Soho Theatre

Football forms a background to Quietly, Owen McCafferty’s Belfast-based drama, but the odds played out on stage in this searing 75-minute play are far bigger and run much deeper than even Bill Shankly could imagine.

Quietly is Northern Ireland’s brutal history in microcosm set in a pub on the city’s fringes where a Catholic and a Protestant meet to play out their own linked personal and painful history.

Northern Ireland are playing a World Cup qualifying match against Poland at home. Polish barman Robert is supporting his home nation with vocal frustration. As usual, he has just one customer, regular Johnny, a morose man shrouded in disappointment resentment, seeking refuge, as he does every night, in this pub at the top of the road. But tonight Jimmy warns Robert to expect another punter and that there “may be shouting”. When the third man, Ian, arrives, there is more than just a bit of shouting, his presence setting off sparks that ignite the fire of these two men’s shared personal history throwing up confessions, half-apologies and regret as Robert looks on as referee.

This tight 75 minute long play bristles with anger, disappointment, resentment – and forgiveness. As the play reached its emotional crescendo, there was a lot of sniffling which I can’t believe was all due to hayfever. But in amongst the angst there were some lovely amusing  moments that cut through the gloom.

Quietly is unpretentious, striking and deeply moving in its simplicity, these are not men used to talking about their feelings or admitting their mistakes. Johnny and Ian’s story is one of many from a certain point in Belfast’s history and its power lies in the way McCafferty draws out the personal from the newspaper headlines. Theatre is so often about small things wrought large – an end of an affair, a family secret – but Quietly is a big story diluted to its essence; the pain of two families destroyed by hate, the effect of history on individuals.

As affecting and as nicely structured as McCafferty’s script is, it’s the actors who elevate Quietly to such an emotional place. Patrick O’Kane, an old school friend and long-term McCafferty collaborator, as Jimmy pulls out a controlled powerhouse of a performance that’s moving yet low-key. Declan Conlon is unassumingly brilliant as Ian, a man weighed down by his past and Robert Zawadzki as the barman brings a lightness of touch when most needed.

Unshowy, yet exhilarating and gripping, the brilliance of Quietly should be shouted from the roof tops

by Suzanne Elliott