Theatre: Arms and the working man

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The Independent Culture


ONE OF the key scenes in Trust, the highly involving - and very involved - new play by Ulster dramatist Gary Mitchell, takes place up at the Knockagh Monument, a lonely location frequented not by those who wish to pay their respects to the dead, but by couples wanting a clandestine shag in a car.

Trust doesn't whack you over the head much with symbols, but there's a calculated, heavily ironic mismatch here between setting and purpose. The Knockagh Monument commemorates the people of Antrim who perished in the Great War fighting side by side with Englishmen. The picture this presents of a unified Protestantism tragi-comically disintegrates in the present-day circumstances in Trust. The spot is the site of a tense meeting between a disaffected Special in the British Army and his Northern Irish girlfriend who, in order to get out of that hellhole are prepared to sell arms, and the couple of working-class "guardians" of the Protestant community who may be prepared to buy.

As with Declan Croghan's recent play Paddy Irishman, Paddy Englishman and Paddy...?, the accent here is much more on potentially violent intra- community problems than on inter-community ones.

The play pitches you into this tribally complex world and a refusal to make concessions to facile intelligibility is a strong virtue both of Mitchell's writing and of Mick Gordon's wonderfully authentic, porous and spacially daring production. It makes compelling psychological use of one of the steeply raked aisles at the Ambassadors and inserts a little landing pad right among the audience.

For an English person, the experience is rather as if you have been rendered invisible and abandoned, bracingly, to find your own way round the minutiae of a world that doesn't know you're there. Most of the often very funny drama takes place in the sitting room of Patrick O'Kane's brilliantly banked-down, simmering and measuredly mordant Geordie, the community's "protector". You brace yourself for the inevitable point that, in looking after the interests of all the folk who crowd his house, Geordie has neglected the needs of his nearest and dearest - particularly the nerdy, misfit teenage son Jake (Gregg Fitzgerald) whose headaches and unsociable ways seem a threat to his father's virility. The kid is being picked on at school. Will the retaliations leave him in greater danger? Linked to the arms-selling plot and involving the kind of alleged deals that Protestant police families and the British Government seem prepared to countenance to prevent anything that would embarrass the peace process, the outcome depends on too much of a thriller switchback ride for my taste, and I must say I've never cared for endings that leave someone making a fateful telephone call.

It's the scenes with more slack and flexibility in them that impress, like the hilarious pub trip where Jake starts downing pints through simple thirst and half-wises up to what is required of him, thus turning the tables on Geordie and his klutzy would-be macho sidekick (Colum Convey). Or the conversations where an appalling history of crime suddenly surfaces with a blackly comic casualness. That's the side of his gift in which Mitchell could place greater trust.

To 3 April (0171-565 5000)