She is an actress with a chameleon-like ability to swap accents, he is a writer whose work is anchored in his native Belfast. Together, they are on stage at the Donmar
I TAKE my hat off to Gary Mitchell. BBC Northern Ireland's local "opt out" channel has delivered some peculiar monsters in its time, but in Red, White and Blue: A Protestant Experience - an extraordinary TV documentary shown last month - the 32-year-old playwright from the "top end" of Rathcoole, that vast loyalist working-class estate just three miles north of Belfast, managed to lift the lid off the ordinary, everyday, true-blue culture of a people whom he obviously holds dear.

As in the 12 strongly worded radio plays he has written since 1990, Mitchell's subjects are unfailingly blunt: the beer-tin culture of the Drumcree beano; family-man paramilitaries under threat of death; even a three-part drama on the touchy subject of the RUC.

"Sure, they're political plays," he says, "but, if that's part of life, why shouldn't it be part of a play? There's a kind of black comedy in the way someone says `Oh, did ye hear they killed Billy Wright?' in between a conversation about going to get the shopping, and I'm afraid that's the way it is..."

A tense, eye-opening living-room whodunit about a UDA hardman, his mentally retarded brother and a menacing little paramilitary peace-broker, his 1995 break-through play, In a Little World of Our Own, opening tonight in a new staging at London's Donmar, probes the tit-for-tat implications of an unsolved sectarian atrocity. Set against the 1994 ceasefires, it's an allegory of the violently imposed order within a besieged community - "the mindset that believes the world ends at the red-white-and-blue- painted kerbstones on the way out of the estate".

Like all his work, it reveals a staunchly sceptical attitude to the sectarianism of the North. How does he get away with it? "Nobody hassles me," he says. "A long time ago, my family were big in the UDA, which was then a legitimate organisation and people thought very highly of it. When it became heavily criminalised in the late 1970s and 1980s, a lot of people, including my family, just walked away. But I've got nine uncles - all big guys - and you don't mess with them. My dad's the smallest one, and I'm the smallest of my family, so maybe that's the genetic line that's coming through. I was always the kid; I was heavily protected and, coming from such a big family, they couldn't browbeat or coerce me. People would expect certain things of you, but you just don't deliver, it's as simple as that."

Born into a Congregational family, Mitchell was educated locally. "We never learnt Irish history in school, it was all English history, geared towards the exams. I think that's why, when we meet Catholics and start arguing about history, we lose."

After long years on the dole, he spent a rough two years in the civil service. "You might say a monkey could have done my job but, honestly, monkeys are too creative. My bosses all seemed to think I was just scum, because I came from Rathcoole, and there were all these regulations, like not being allowed to wear red-white-and-blue. They even had a problem with my Crystal Palace mug. It was ridiculous, I couldn't cope."

Near desperation, he joined a drama group, began writing for the first time in his life, and wrote a stage play, The World, the Flesh and the Divil. It was rejected by the group but quickly picked up by director Pam Brighton at the BBC, and he hasn't looked back since.

Despite his growing success, Mitchell still lives with his folks in Rathcoole. Since the Troubles, the population has dropped from 17,000 to 8,000, while the forced eviction of most of its Catholics has turned it almost 100 per cent Protestant. Mitchell has no intention of relocating, however; when he's not travelling with his work, he spends his time there, writing, hanging about.

"I love my family, so why should I go anywhere else? I love this place, I really do, and I think the people who leave are like rats deserting a sinking ship. I mean, there's a lot of work to be done here...."

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