A History Of The Troubles, Tricycle Theatre, London

When tragedy is no laughing matter
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The Independent Culture

"O stranger from England, why stand so aghast?" asks the famous poem of the visitor to the capital of Northern Ireland. I was sitting down, but otherwise the question could have been put to me at The History of the Troubles (Accordin' to My Da). The ghastliness set in early, when Conor Grimes and Alan McKee, in their brief history of the city, spoke of early Belfast men in "Neolithic tracksuits," carrying "primitive petrol bombs". When they mentioned the saber-toothed tigers these fellows had to dodge, McKee twisted his mouth around in a fierce but goofy face. Neolithic man, one felt, would have been better company.

The two comedians collaborated with Martin Lynch on this reminiscence of the recent strife in bloody Belfast. Their input shows in the play's resemblance to a series of comic routines with chances for more hilarious jokes and funny faces. Ivan Little - a calm and likable presence, thank goodness - is the Da, a Catholic named Gerry Courtney who lives on a council estate and whose only occupation seems to be signing on. In the three decades that follow 1969, when the Falls Road claims its first victims, Gerry goes to a lot of pubs and illegal drinking dens (the latter sprout up overnight in a bombed-out shop or surgery). His clumsy attempt to join the IRA leads to internment without trial in Long Kesh. Gerry's son, so intelligent he later wins a place at Queen's University, is disgusted at age 12 by the evil that grown men do, and bursts out, "I don't want to be an adult." The gods hear him. At last the latter-day Troubles end, "apart from all the bombings, maimings, and shootings".

The material certainly sounds serious, but what is made of it, in Karl Wallace's tedious production, is a string of sketches and one-liners, punctuated by news bulletins (Ian Paisley's formation of a Third Force, the Brighton hotel bombing) and snatches of apposite Rolling Stones tunes. Even this superficial form might work if the tone were consistently, bitingly satiric. But the comedy in Troubles is not cutting or illuminating. Its only purpose is to get a laugh, and it fails in even this modest aim, resorting to tired, sub-Benny Hill gags: a porter says that he thinks a nurse fancies him because she was whispering to him. What did she whisper? his friend asks. "She told me to get the fuck out of the ward." Gerry's haemorrhoids form the subject of many more jokes.

Grimes and McKee fill many parts, but most of the evening play Gerry's mates. Grimes is Fireball, a lisping hospital porter who we're told is married and a father many times over, though his manner is suspiciously fastidious. McKee is Felix, a lazy lump who has the one line I laughed at: he earnestly asks the IRA recruiting officer, "If I join up, how would that affect my dole?" There is a running gag that begins with Felix introducing the topic of sex - not by saying the terrible word, but by asking Gerry, "Does your wife like...?" and wiggling his fingers. His own wife, he says, doesn't, but it is soon obvious, to all but him, that she likes it elsewhere.

This offstage character, along with the tiny role of Gerry's son - whose death upsets his father less than that of Bobby Sands - suggests a different play, the obverse of this sentimental celebration of male friendship. Is sectarian violence the greatest blight on family life in this community, or is it men who are too full of self-pity and resentment to fulfill their responsibilities? Men whose idea of masculinity resides in safely sexless drinking sessions rather than in pleasing a woman or teaching a child? Could the real trouble in Northern Ireland be the infantilism of its male population? If so, the writing and clowning in The History of the Troubles doesn't so much caricature this as exemplify it.

To 28 June (020-7328 1000)