Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh
August, 2004
*** / ****

Playwright Marie Jones knows that sentimentality often needs to be undercut with bathos, but she doesn't always do so quite enough. Her international hit Stones In His Pockets does not get the balance right so much as keep the imbalance within acceptable limits; in the end, though, we know that Jones is on the side of the contemplative yet feelgood sniffle into the hankie.

So it is with her new play The Blind Fiddler. It's a family play, a memory play, in which Belfast woman Kathleen tries to understand her late father, who effectively gave up human contact with his daughter in order to work all hours to pay for a home in a salubrious area and, later, Kathleen's boarding school. In her mother, on the other hand, she has an endless stream of sacrifice and regimentation, with the best will in the world but without any realisation that love needs displayed in simpler ways.

It's very rare to see the Catholic middle classes or those who aspired to such depicted in drama covering this period (the eve of the Troubles); as with so much of her writing, Jones unfussily adds another dimension to the social picture to take it beyond the predictable ABC. What's missing here is closer to the heart of the play. We see Kathleen's feelings of being sundered from her father, but we are never really vouchsafed an insight into what lies beneath his bedtime stories and bar-room banter in the pub he runs. Marty Maguire's performance skilfully hints at such dimensions, but it's frustrating not to see them more clearly. It all works well enough, but one hopes that this is the area where any two-act version of the currently 90-minute play will be most expanded.

Also playing at the Assembly Rooms, and harder going though more rewarding, is Conall Morrison's Hard To Believe. Morrison's protagonist also relives memories in his search for a place for himself after the death of his last surviving relative, a place as a Catholic working for military intelligence, as a Catholic descended from a Protestant preacher he never knew about, and simply as a Catholic: the title refers both to a series of Troubles anecdotes and to the character's difficulties with the faith in which he was raised. Séan Kearns is a great big joy of an actor who deserves to be better known on this side of the Irish Sea: he can be grim, sardonic and slightly camp all at once, and Morrison's writing and direction make the most of his skills.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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