Review: Chronicles of Long Kesh

Review: Chronicles of Long Kesh

If I had a star system, I would give the revival of Martin Lynch’s Chronicles of Long Kesh at the Grand Opera House four or even five.  For it’s a brilliant, harrowing portrayal of a Troubled time in Northern Ireland. Specifically, events leading up to and beyond the fall out from internment which led to the dirty protests and tragic hunger strikes. What’s surprising, or perhaps not, is the darkest of dark humour. Also the light in the darkness, human resilience if you like, indicated by the clever use of the sweetest pop music of the era. As you hear the prisoners belt out My Girl or All my Lovin’ your emotional range is extended.

We started with the prisoners’ drill and met the cast of men either believing in a war against the colonial British or swept up by events. The Provo footsoldiers are a mixed bunch. Toot (engaging Gerard McCabe) is a clown, makes friends with the seagulls at the Maze but is craftier than his cheeky chappie demeanour suggests. Hank Is a would be hippy diverted from going to San Francisco by events. And Eamon (moving Shaun Blaney) is a principled guy who veers into involvement because of an incident. Bombs are great recruiters, and he is in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Internment acts as glue, binding the men to their just cause. What makes the history more painful in witnessing the casual cruelty of the prison officers. They tortured internees and Lisa May’s physical direction doesn’t shy away from harsh reality. It’s tough, realistic but not in presentation, and affecting.

There’s a tragic irony in the way the music, led by magnificent Oscar (Marty Maguire on top form), spells out peace and love while the plot centres on hate. Or at least toxic division.

At the centre of the action, alongside IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries, is Freddie, the prison warder. Porridge this is not. Jimmy Doran’s figure is at times comic, hapless, but ultimately another tragedy to add to the list. He played the basically decent man caught up in torture and activity not of his choosing superbly. His descent into alcoholism was moving and understandable.

What wasn’t easily understood was the true horror of it all, the allowance of ten young men to die needlessly. The music at the end reminded one of the human spirit, which continues with wives and children also affected and maybe no longer in the picture Jo Donnelly acted a storm as a selection of women, plus a Loyalist hood.

In the end, after attempted escapes and the dirty protest and the aftermath of the hunger strikes, our men are released, having lost many years of their lives. They exit, happy but a bit unsure about the new world they're going to rejoin. A clever scene had a Provo and Loyalist prisoner comparing notes, just men, just the same.

Go see this if you can get a ticket.

Chronicles of Long Kesh runs until June 8 at the Grand Opera House, Belfast

Jane Hardy

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