It's impossible for me to write about Marie Jones's A Night In November without admitting that the play gave me a Killing Me Softly With His Song experience. The domestic finickiness and political complacency, and what one might call the "institutional bigotry" of lower-middle-class Protestant East Belfast portrayed by Jones in the life of her solo protagonist Kenneth McCallister, is absolutely the world I grew up in and still smart to recollect. It's a world in which you can piously decry paramilitaries without questioning their cause, when it's "your" cause – it's the excess that makes you uncomfortable, not the principle.
This is brought home to Kenneth when, finding himself reluctantly on the football terraces for the Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland World Cup qualifying match in November 1993, he finds thuggish loyalist atavism thrust in his face and is unable to deny his shame at it. He tries to suppress this revelation, finally grapples with it and finds an escape by doing a runner one night from his manicured-lawn semi-detached home and using his golf club subscription fees to fund an impulse trip to New York to... yes... follow the Republic's team in the 1994 finals.
Jones releases Kenneth, and us, too easily in this final phase, as in her greatest hit Stones In His Pockets; here, it's as if drink, craic, hugs and the ball skills of Packie Bonner are all that are needed to erase 800 years of strife. Her portrait of Kenneth's earlier crisis, though, is electrifying, the finest writing from her that I have seen. This isn't just my partiality: a non-press-night, sell-out Tricycle Theatre audience agreed volubly. The blend of the particular and the universal is delicate and keen: when Kenneth gets a glimpse into a Catholic colleague's home life, what he sees is not predicated on religion, but a coincidental culture of spontaneity and inclusiveness rather than his own milieu of barriers, expectations and commandments.
Where playwright Gary Mitchell piercingly articulates the siege mentality of hard-line Belfast loyalists, Jones here goes the other way – not to a guilty liberal, but an awkward Everyman slowly realising the truth about the life he's trudging through. The challenge of facing up to the unpalatable (to put it mildly) is something we can all feelingly recognise.
Marty Maguire's performance is, as we used to say back home, wheeker – it's terrific. He animates a whole range of characters, but never for a moment falls into that solo performer's trap of showing off his own abilities instead of the story. His years in California haven't dulled his ear, either; his sense of vocal nuance is exquisite – never mind the various accents from "down South", you can actually hear the minute differences between East and West Belfast.
This play was premiered bare weeks before the 1994 ceasefires, and in some respects we might like to kid ourselves that it's a portrait of a past world – the story is bookended not just by two football matches, but by two violent loyalist atrocities. And Jones may let us off the hook of violence in the final minute (who remembers the Loughinisland shootings now, anyway?), but the cultural discomfort and challenge remain, and bite deep. The night I saw it, the show overran by nearly a third of its advertised two-hour-plus duration; this may prove a logistical problem when it moves to the Edinburgh Fringe next month, but in performance it never drags for an instant.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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