Finborough Theatre, London SW10
Opened 1 December, 2005

The winners of the inaugural Dan Crawford Pub Theatre award astutely end the London theatre year by drawing together two of its significant threads. In 2005 the capital has already seen three major productions of plays by Brian Friel, and two runs of Richard Norton-Taylor's latest verbatim tribunal drama Bloody Sunday. Now the Finborough offers the first revival in thirty-odd years of Friel's drama inspired by the gruesome events in Derry in 1972.

Friel shifts the action by a couple of years, reduces the number of victims to three, and (in what is almost an act of charity, in the historical circumstances) invents a tenuous reason for their being shot dead by the British Army: that, having taken refuge from rubber bullets and CS gas in the nearest open building, the three found themselves by chance in the mayor's parlour of the city's Guildhall and were therefore mistaken for terrorists occupying the symbolic citadel of Protestant ascendancy.

The evident depth to which Friel was stricken by the events of Bloody Sunday is reflected in his efforts to find a way to treat the material dramatically. His usual naturalistic portrayal of the trio in the parlour sits at the centre of a most un-Friel-like agitprop collage: testimony to a Widgery-style whitewashing inquiry (presided over by John Hart Dyke on a tennis umpire's seat), sociological lectures about the culture of poverty as experienced by the city's Catholic population and the consciousness-raising effect of civil rights movements such as Derry saw in the late 1960s, pulpit speeches from priests and even political ballads... the last of which, in portraying the victims not as innocents but as brave republican "volunteers", in effect collude with the official British line.

Director Anna Jones treads skilfully through this structural and tonal labyrinth, all the more admirably for having to compact it on to such a small stage. Of the central trio, Claire Cogan shines as a no-nonsense mother of eleven and Nick Lee as a principled but idealistic Civil Rights activist; Richard Flood is less at ease either vocally or temperamentally as a ducker-and-diver who enjoys the mischief of the situation. And life imitates art: the real Guildhall has subsequently seen the premieres of a number of plays by Friel, and most recently has hosted the second, more exhaustive judicial inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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