Taking on the RUC with a straight bat

<i>Portadown Blues</i> | Theatre Workshop, Edinburgh
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The Independent Culture

There's a great deal to applaud about this variously challenging production, marking the debut of Theatre Workshop's new company, the first in-house professional ensemble in Europe to integrate disabled actors fully into all its shows. Several of the cast being thus well-acquainted with intolerance and marginalisation, the theme of sectarianism, or more broadly, plain prejudice, is aptly chosen.

There's a great deal to applaud about this variously challenging production, marking the debut of Theatre Workshop's new company, the first in-house professional ensemble in Europe to integrate disabled actors fully into all its shows. Several of the cast being thus well-acquainted with intolerance and marginalisation, the theme of sectarianism, or more broadly, plain prejudice, is aptly chosen.

It's forcefully dramatised, too, centrally through the shocking real-life stories of Robert Hamill, a young Catholic man kicked to death by a Loyalist mob in Portadown three years ago - watched by four RUC men from their Land-Rover 20 yards away - and Rosemary Nelson, his family's solicitor, who was murdered by a car bomb last year.

By combining factually based and imaginary characters, both Irish and Scottish, together with a classic blues soundtrack, the play explores the multiple political and moral dimensions of its theme, from the RUC's attempts at a cover-up to the fundamental parallels between forms of bigotry everywhere, be it a Glasgow Rangers fan's sheep-like adherence to the Orange cause or lynch mobs in the American South.

A most eloquent moment comes early, when Nabil Shaban, who alternates between the roles of narrator and a lawyer, declares "I am black. I live in Mississippi. The year is 1962," to the accompaniment of Nina Simone's "Strange Fruit", and the projected image of a body hanging from a tree. This audiovisual tableau and those brief lines, in the context of Hamill's and Nelson's story, illuminates those wider connections with masterful economy.

Another cracking line arises from a conversation between Muz Murray's RUC officer, and his English boss, played by Tim Gebbels, where the latter advises "a straight bat" in handling the Hamill affair. "This is Northern Ireland, sir," comes the measured reply. "We don't play a lot of cricket around here." Again, a few words speak volumes - which makes it doubly disappointing that so much of Portadown Blues rams its message home so heavy-handedly.

To 21 Oct (0131 226 5425 )

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