Even The Bill does it better

The Force Of Change | Royal Court Theatre, London
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The Independent Culture

For all its twists and turns, its revelations of secret allegiances, Gary Mitchell's drama, set in a Belfast police station, never solves one mystery. How on earth did his play, first performed at the Theatre Upstairs last April, win praise and prizes? Robert Delamere's earlier production, I'm told, was more intense and gripping, but, then, any episode of The Bill will look more like Macbeth if you play it in a phone box. And as far as The Force of Change goes, Sun Hill seems a lot closer than Dunsinane.

For all its twists and turns, its revelations of secret allegiances, Gary Mitchell's drama, set in a Belfast police station, never solves one mystery. How on earth did his play, first performed at the Theatre Upstairs last April, win praise and prizes? Robert Delamere's earlier production, I'm told, was more intense and gripping, but, then, any episode of The Bill will look more like Macbeth if you play it in a phone box. And as far as The Force of Change goes, Sun Hill seems a lot closer than Dunsinane.

Despite its locale, the play's antagonists are not Protestant and Catholic but Protestants of different stripes - old against young, radical against moderate, male versus female.

Caroline, an attractive detective sergeant up for promotion, is interrogating Stanley, a thug with links to terrorists. The part gives Laine Megaw, leading an admirable cast, the chance for long, sarcastic addresses, full of ridicule and sexual contempt, to the determinedly silent Stanley. She gives Caroline an odd, doll-like walk, but there is a limit to what even this proficient and likeable actress can do to invest a cookie-cutter tough cookie with a distinctive personality. Caroline leaves off being the brisk, foul-mouthed copper only to take calls on her mobile from hubbie and kiddies. These are like everybody's mobile calls.

Caroline's opponents are not only the criminals but her colleagues. Bill (Sean Caffrey), a plodding 30-year-old, loathes her, and David (Stuart Graham), near her in age but below her in rank, isn't much warmer. Mark (Simon Wolfe) has the most interesting relationship with Caroline - a bit older but the same rank, he engages in a flirtation based on cosying up to her mentally rather than sexually. When harsher lines have to be drawn, however, masculinity proves a stronger bond than status or duty.

If the behaviour of Mitchell's characters is predictable, their dialogue is practically part of one's race-memory, as they natter away drearily, then deliver portentous exit lines. David tells Caroline she's no good at her job, which she got only because she's a woman: "Me, I'm here and I will always be here because tits don't get the job done, balls do." Mark, aghast when Caroline takes the side of a prisoner he has attacked, says, "What are you doing?". She says, "My job".

As for a sense of milieu, Mitchell provides that by giving Bill a long speech: "David Trimble ... blah blah ... Gerry Adams ... blah blah ... the RUC ... the UVF ... blah blah..." Change the terrorists to drug-pushers, set the play in England, and, for all its local colour and texture, it would sound exactly the same - an adaptability that doesn't show that Mitchell's message is universal, but that he never had one.

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