Gary Mitchell's behind-the-scenes life may be full of extraordinary theatrics, but he has not found the way to turn this into an effective stage drama. The subtlety, fine plotting and sense of moral urgency that underlies so much of Mitchell's past playwriting -- "As the Beast Sleeps," "In a Little World of Our Own," "The Force of Change" -- are lacking in this underdeveloped and uneven world premiere.
Gary Mitchell’s behind-the-scenes life may be full of extraordinary theatrics, but he has not found the way to turn this into an effective stage drama. The subtlety, fine plotting and sense of moral urgency that underlies so much of Mitchell’s past playwriting — “As the Beast Sleeps,” “In a Little World of Our Own,” “The Force of Change” — are lacking in this underdeveloped and uneven world premiere.The play comes out of Mitchell’s experience of being driven with his family from their home by Unionist paramilitaries, apparently angered by Mitchell’s success in writing about the internal violence in his Protestant community. He wrote this play in response to a commission from a theater in the nationalist (Catholic) community in Northern Ireland, and it could have been an opportunity to build bridges between the sides. But Mitchell may not yet have sufficient distance from the material, and this work smacks unpleasantly of point-scoring and, at its worst, pro-nationalist propaganda. Interestingly, Mitchell’s jumping-off point is to put himself in the place of the perpetrators of the crimes against him: His central character is Tony (Sam Murdock), a 17-year-old working-class Protestant drawn into a life of violence with the Ulster Defense Assn. (UDA), the paramilitary organization that attacked Mitchell’s home in December. But Mitchell’s contempt and anger shows through in the thinness of his depiction of the UDA “hard men”: It is far too quick and easy for Geordie (Kieran Lagan), Tony’s UDA kingpin uncle, to lure his nephew into the organization with promises of money and status. This may be the way it works in the paramilitary world, but effective playwriting relies on embodied conflict and the presentation of two sides of an argument. Giving Tony’s imbecilic sidekick Darren a speech impediment, apparently for the sake of comedy, seems a particularly low blow (although newcomer Bryan Steenson plays the role with admirable energy and conviction). The play gets meaty only in its final 10 minutes, when Tony’s father, Charlie (Lalor Roddy), and Geordie finally stand off about Tony’s future. Charlie, we learn too late, left the UDA with his own father when the group was criminalized in the early 1990s, and has been protected by Geordie ever since. Thus, by challenging his brother, Charlie is effectively signing his own death warrant. Why wasn’t this articulated earlier? The discussion of the father also throws limited light on the character of Maud (Eileen Pollock), mother of Charlie and Geordie and grandmother of Tony, in whose house the action takes place. Throughout, she supports Geordie’s co-opting of Tony as enthusiastically as she accepts Geordie’s fat wads of cash every week, but it is never sufficiently explained why this mature woman turned her back on a lawful existence. How did family become the only value she recognizes? Charlie delivers the play’s obvious message when he explains patiently to his son that the biggest threat to Northern Protestants these days are the criminal elements of their own community. Fair enough: Mitchell’s own experience bears out this assertion. But for Charlie to further argue that no such intimidation happens on the nationalist side because “the IRA has disbanded” crosses the line into outright — and factually unsupportable — sectarian politicking. The excellent Roddy provides a much-needed sense of backbone as Charlie, but the production’s midsection sags when he’s offstage. As Geordie, Lagan’s perf is obvious and unnuanced, while first-time thesp Murdock shows promise as Tony but needs more time to mature into the role. Apparently attempting to fill in the holes in her character with displays of emotion, Pollock overacts considerably as Maud. The ramshackle feel of the production’s setting — a converted barn-like space with the audience placed haphazardly at cafe tables — is echoed in Pam Brighton’s uneven production. Some actors struggled for their lines on opening night, while intra-scene blackouts seemed to come out of nowhere.