Marty Maguire gives a marvellous performance as Oscar in this visiting production at the Tricycle Theatre. He plays – to plump perfection – the kind of bumptious, utterly winning show-off who would give Shakespeare's Bottom a run for his money in the adorable charm stakes. And he sings Motown and other pop hits unaccompanied and dances with a tubby man's endearing flair, too. The only trouble is that Oscar is an IRA man who would, professedly, like to be the death of certain Protestants in the Belfast of the 1970s onwards. And there, in a nutshell, you have the reason why I feel pretty uneasy about Chronicles of Long Kesh, the show by Martin Lynch (and directed by him with Lisa May) which tells the story of this prison, used to house paramilitary prisoners between 1971 and 2000, with a male-bonding breeziness that reminded me of The Full Monty.
The production is tightly drilled physically with the company of six regularly breaking into a capella renditions of the changing hits of the era. Providing a through-line, there's Billy Clarke's anxious Freddie, who winds up a prison officer after tossing a coin between that job and the police. We see how the pressures and conflicts of the role drive him to the bottle and marriage break-up.
Let me be clear about the nature of my misgivings. I think that there is certainly room for a piece that shows, from the point of view of the men who had been interned without trial, the hunger strikes and the political protests involving the smearing of cells with excrement. But my doubts about this version are two-fold. Its style of largely prop-less, abstract physical theatre can't begin to give you a sufficiently visceral sense of the degradation. When Oscar sculpts a mantelpiece and a trio of conventional flying ducks to put over it out of his own shit, he could be some budding Chris Ofili avant la lettre, cheerily fashioning art from elephant dung, for all the feeling you get of the horror to which this man has been reduced.
There are some heart-rending scenes, adroitly flecked with humour, between the prisoners and their sorely tried spouses. But there's far too little acknowledgement of the lives the IRA and the UVF wrecked in the outside world. The Tricycle's own earlier show about the plight of inmates of Guantanamo had more dignity – and did not, like this, go in for feel-good ingratiation.
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