The Tinderbox Theatre Company has decided not to wait for reviews in order to obtain an admiring quote: the programme itself describes Second-Hand Thunder as "a stunning new thriller by Joseph Crilly". Stunning? Perhaps not, but an extremely nice piece of work nevertheless.
Crilly sets his action in the fictitious "small mid-Ulster town" of Ballycharles, in three mid-decade acts. Taped "radio" segments characterise the social climate in each case. In Act One, set in 1976, a schoolchild describes the place as idyllic, a townland where the Troubles have scarcely impinged. By the following act, in 1996, Ballycharles has its own Drumcree-like stand-off between obstinate Orangemen and a housing estateful of "chockies" (as in tiocfaidh ar lá, the Republican cry of "Our day will come").
But rather than write a piece about the Troubles, Crilly has used the polarisation, bigotry and paradoxes of sectarianism (such that a Protestant bigwig would rather ally himself with an unsavoury Catholic lawyer than with a secular Southern schoolteacher) as the fabric on which to embroider his narrative. The Ulster-drama cliché of "love across the barricades" is used here in passing and is quickly resolved; the principal story is an altogether darker one of rape, blackmail, murder and cover-up. We are shown first the seeds of the central crime, then the cankered fruit it bears two decades later; only after the interval, in the final act set in 1986, do we see the act itself.
It is a simple structure to create, a harder one to pull off effectively; a writer walks the line between being too oblique for an audience and spoonfeeding them excessively. Crilly and director Stephen Wright credit us with enough intelligence and handle the thriller aspect skilfully: we really were audibly speculating on who had dunnit. The black irreverence of Northern Irish humour is also well represented, if sometimes a little unsettlingly for one who, like me, has been away from home too long: we know we are laughing at bigotry rather than with it, but at times the humour seems disquietingly reminiscent of the 1970s TV sitcom Love Thy Neighbour, with black and white replaced by green and orange. At the same time, though, the play relies upon our sensitivity to certain kinds of hints: we know that as soon as young Bobby's girlfriend gives her name as Bernie, his brothers in their Orange sashes will realise that he is consorting with a "left-footer" ("Bernie... that would be like Bernadette?" – "Like Bernadette Devlin?"). Ulster antennae can twitch at no more than a nickname.
Lyric Theatre stalwart John Hewitt is as efficacious as ever in the role of devious lawyer Vincy McCrystal, Gordon Fulton blusters impressively as "Big Mark" Abraham, and Sean Kearns as Alex Abraham ages plausibly into his father's rumbling but at heart insecure successor. On the strength of this thoughtful, well-crafted showing, Crilly (shortlisted for the Verity Bargate Award in 1996) deserves to have more of his work seen across the water.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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