Theatre / The Soldier's Song Theatre Royal Stratford East, London

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The Independent Culture
Set on the eve of the IRA ceasefire, The Soldier's Song was written more than a year ago and its scepticism about the prospects for a lasting peace seems, in the light of recent events, well founded rather than pessimistic. The action of this first play, by 29-year-old Bryan James Ryder, takes place on the author's home turf - the front room of a house in the Falls Road. Assisted by John Dove's powerfully involving production, it pulls you into a stifling, tribal world, where the certainties are rain, unemployment and violence, and where some folk can only afford to buy new curtains, say, in a sale of smoke-damaged goods after Provo fire-bombings.

The McManus family has astoic matriarch (the excellent Anne Carroll), a feckless, boozing layabout of a father (Colin Tarrant) and children who have taken divergent approaches to their cultural inheritance. On a fateful night when the bickering family is blown apart first by the realisation that the university friend brought home for tea is a Protestant and then by the discovery that the son is an IRA hitman, the most effectively dramatised tension comes from bitter differences of opinion over educational aspirations.

A frowzy armchair patriot who hasn't worked for 15 years, the father nonetheless feels entitled to accuse his wife of neglect when she decides to take night classes to get a better job. Eamon, the son, played with a wonderfully rattled, enigmatic anguish by Billy Carter, resents his classics student sister, who is almost contemptuous of working-class culture and who does not waste sympathy on her mother. He had let a promising academic career go to channel his energies into a clandestine career with the IRA.

There is a creakily unconvincing contrivance to the way his secret is rumbled by the father and by Mary MacLeod's snooping neighbour (don't IRA men check whether there are people in the next room before arguing loudly over procedure and ethics?). There is also a set-piece feel in the speech where Eamon describes how, as a schoolboy, he witnessed his father's humiliation by British soldiers, an incident that left him ashamed of Da and ("Standing there, I swear something in me died...") converted him from swotty schoolboy to wannabe killer. It says a lot for Mr Carter's performance that he makes his character fully human (he's helped by Tracy Keating, who is admirably moving as the Protestant girl who loves him). Dazed and disoriented by a ceasefire that renders his previous murders meaningless, the stricken, reluctant Billy is forced out on one last job. It's an offer he can't refuse; the alternative is a sticky end for Ma or Sis. Showing the suffocating hold these gangsters have over the streets and the lives of people there, this promising first play leaves you more sanguine about its author's future than Northern Ireland's.

n To 13 April. Booking: 0181-534 0310

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