Writer: Joseph Crilly
Director: Jonathan Harden
Few positives came out of the troubles which plagued the island of Ireland in the final decades of the 20th Century, but at least the theatre has been left with some cracking good plays. If Joseph Crilly’s On McQuillan’s Hill, first staged in Belfast in 2000 and receiving its English premiere now, is not up there with the best of them, it still manages to give an engaging account of a community beginning to heal in the aftermath of violence and confronting the challenges of managing change.
The play’s tone is positioned somewhere between the piercing heartache of Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman and the ferocious satire of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore. It is 1999 and Fra Maline (Johnny Vivash), a Republican dissident, has been released from prison under the terms of the Good Friday Peace Agreement to return home to a small rural Ulster village. He seems lost to understand his purpose now that the focus of his life has been consigned to history.
The action all takes place in the village hall, set on a hillside. It is the scene of past revelries, but holder of the keys, Mrs Tymelly (Helena Bereen), is about to hand them over to Fra’s estranged sister, Loretta (Gina Costigan), who is returning from a form of exile in London. When Fra looks out of a window in the hall and observes that the whole world is changing, but the village remains the same, he is wrong. The village is changing too.
Crilly gets the play off to a poor start. New characters are introduced in pairs to talk to each other about past events and characters with whom we are unfamiliar. Early scenes lack context and, by keeping the chief protagonists apart, the writer denies most of the first act the dramatic tension that it sorely needs. At the interval, only solid acting offers an incentive to stay, but everything changes quickly thereafter as the play explodes into life and, for the first time, pitch black humour in the style of McDonagh begins to emerge.
Vivash gives the quick-tempered Fra an edge of danger, as he uses physical intimidation to regain his past dominance. He shows indifference to his daughter Theresa, played with an air of vulnerability by Julie Maguire, and hostility to handyman Ray (Declan Rodgers), a sexual predator who is trying to rekindle his past love affair with Loretta. Fra also reunites with his old buddy and covert lover, Dessie, who is given quiet dignity in Kevin Murphy’s performance. The depiction of a gay relationship, albeit a closet one, is in itself a signal of the many changes taking place in Irish life.
As secrets are revealed, betrayals exposed and taboos faced up to, the drama and the comedy become more intense, but the variations of tone in the writing seem to give director Jonathan Harden a few problems. His production accentuates dramatic confrontations, but there is a suspicion that it does not find all the dark comedy that Crilly has planted and moments of tenderness, meant to be touching, feel slightly awkward. That said, although It’s a slow climb up McQuillan’s Hill, it’s just about worth the effort when we reach the summit.
Runs until 29 February 2020