Belfast comedy company The Hole In The Wall Gang perform a sketch which has become a local classic, parodying the archetypal Troubles play. It features a paramilitary son anguished by a case of love across the sectarian divide, a bigoted hectoring father and a supportive mother whose universal panacea is a cup of tea. It is hard to believe that Belfast-born Bryan James Ryder has not seen the spoof, but his first play nevertheless features all these elements to a greater or lesser extent.
The McManus family from the Falls Road offers your typical Troubles-drama fare: son Eamon is in a Provie terrorist cell, father Jimmy an unemployed, narrow-minded and selfish drunkard, and daughter Elaine lives away from home whilst she betters herself at Queen's University. The linchpin of the family is mother Irene, who is intent on ringing the changes by studying for the qualifications that would bring her a better full-time job – naturally seen as a betrayal by Jimmy.
The play is set on the eve of the 1994 ceasefire, with Eamon about to go out on one of the last "jobs" before the cessation. He is given a moderately perceptive speech revealing a subconscious fear that the ceasefire will rob him of the central defining aspect of his life, but otherwise Ryder sadly fails to explore the massive extent to which that decision redrew the social as well as the political playing-field; it provides no more than a marginal element of topicality.
The five central cast members perform with individual and collective diligence, avoiding the pitfalls of playing the accent instead of the lines, although only Billy Carter as Eamon sounds plausibly Belfast. Carter's performance stands out: he has the ability to suggest inner turmoil while standing immobile through another character's outburst, and copes well as Ryder's writing becomes more laboured and frenzied towards the obligatory bloody offstage climax. Anne Carroll makes the most of a mother who is more than a mere ancillary figure, and Tracy Keating almost transcends plot-device status in the little she is given to work with as Elaine's university friend Jenny. Colin Tarrant never quite gets to grips with Jimmy's faltering journey towards self-recognition.
The Soldier's Song had its genesis in an audition piece – presumably Eamon's speech immediately before he leaves to commit his final act of violence. However, as a full-length play it is original neither in approach nor content. Northern Irish writers often rise to the opportunity afforded them of articulating viewpoints more trenchantly than their elected representatives, but in this case – just as with all too many political utterances from the province – we have, alas, heard it all before.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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