Strange Fish Theatre Company’s
by Gary Naylor
No man - if he's honest, and many are not - can look back at their testosterone-fuelled teenage years without wondering, "What if I'd paid a full price for all that foolishness?" Everyone makes mistakes - what determines the consequences is the combination of environment and luck that continues to shape our lives, but never quite to the same extent, the risks never quite so great, the mind never quite as addled by hormones. Many men might wish to be (as the Buzzcocks once sang) "Sixteen Again" but only if we can have the perspective acquired over the decades since.
The tragic mismatch of bravado and judgement lie at the heart of Owen McCafferty's electrifying (almost) two-hander, Quietly. Jimmy hobbles into a bar and warns the Polish barman Robert (Belfast has immigrants in the 21st century having not attracted many in the 20th) that a man will meet him and things might get difficult, but that it's nothing to do with him.
Ian walks in and is greeted with violence, to which he does not respond, and the men sit and talk. Jimmy is a (lapsed) Catholic and Ian a Protestant: 36 years ago, long before the Good Friday Agreement brought a cessation to The Troubles (a guerrilla civil war that raged in the UK for decades), their lives had previously crossed in violence, that time with far-reaching consequences, destined to remain unresolved.
The men are 52 years old now, and both recognise that the lads who screamed "Fenian Bastards" and "Orange Bastards" at each other from crowds filled with kids just like them, are not the men they are now. They sit and talk, telling their own stories that start at such divergent points, but narrow and narrow into the focus that brings them to that same bar that saw such carnage in 1974. It's not Freud's talking cure for their pain, but it helps - Truth, if not quite Reconciliation.
Performed in the theatre bar, a tension felt palpable in the air. To many of us this was not dusty history, but barely faded memory, the dull thud of the Bishopsgate bomb for me as I stood in a telephone box near Bank tube station or the indelible front page images of the Birmingham pub bombings, also from 1974. No Brit (and certainly no Irish man or woman) of 50 years or more, will not feel something bubble to the surface, triggered by this ancient enmity laid out in full view.
Paul Lloyd gives us a Jimmy hobbled by broken legs and a broken heart, but whose intelligence and self-knowledge washes over his deep-seated (and justified) resentment, his emotions not so much suppressed, but more balanced, time having wrought its work. Nick Danan, stiller - though not always - is seeking redemption of some kind, but not the absolution of the Roman faith. Both performances are frighteningly plausible.
But it's McCafferty's words that reached into the hearts and minds of the audience, and, even if most of the banter with the barman (Matt Dunphy) was a little unnecessary, it's a price worth paying for the conversation between the two antagonists. The 70 minutes production is simply, but brilliantly, directed by James O'Donnell in the bar at which we were standing just moments earlier, a reminder of how The Troubles would transform familiar spaces.
As the Irish Problem (really, it's a British Problem) finds a voice yet again, this time in the context of Brexit, Quietly is a reminder that the hard won absence of violence that followed the Good Friday Agreement was not the result of issues being resolved (well, not many) but of men growing old and looking back at their youth and not wanting their sons to fall into the same temptations. Those men will die soon (many have already) and the lessons learned may well go with them.
What will the 16 year-olds born today do when the blood is up and romantic tales of liberation and heroism are whispered into their ears?
by Richard Beck
This is a play of remarkable intensity steeped in The Troubles that afflicted Northern Ireland for decades. Only those who grew up in that violent period and endured the strife, coercion and suffering they brought can begin to tell of its horrors. Few writers of Owen McCafferty’s standing are better qualified to take on the challenge of presenting this subject and the London based Irish theatre company Strange Fish is the the ideal group to bring it onto the stage. Lloyd captures all the bitterness and resentment of a childhood ripped apart by the events of one day when Jimmy was aged just sixteen. He’s a man with mission who will not relent from his struggle to hear a confession from the boy of the same age who was responsible for the atrocity. Danan, constantly under attack from Lloyd’s gritty anger, listens and repeatedly tries to explain his own background and the inevitability of his becoming involved with the UVF. His pain is palpable, and his silences are full of haunting guilt. As he struggles with his conscious he manages to say something that may or may not be enough. Meanwhile, Dunphy brings moments of light relief and humanity to this scenario and is an endearingly witty and welcoming barman.
In South Africa after years of bitter division the grand Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up in a great public display of confessions and pardons. No such body ever emerged in Northern Ireland. It was left to individuals in their diverse ways to create their own peace as best they could. Many did; others never will. Director James O’Donnell has sensitively brought together a cast that portrays just one possible attempt.
Strange Fish Theatre Company’s
The Turn of the Screw
by Terry Eastham
The world has long had a fascination with ghost stories. Possibly this is due to a need to believe that a human’s span of existence is much longer than the four score years and ten they spend on the earth. Maybe it’s also a way of keeping our loved ones ‘alive’ but whatever the reason, life after death and what happens once you pass through the veil has long been an obsession of people. And so, with this in mind, I was off to the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham for an evening of spooky goings on with Jeffrey Hatcher’s The Turn of the Screw.
In Victorian London, a young lady (Ruth Oliman) is being interviewed for the post of governess. Her interviewer (Nick Danan) is a city gent who is the uncle to two children – Miles and Flora – that live in his country house. The uncle professes that he has no interest in the children and, should she get the job, the young lady is not to contact him about the children under any circumstances. Accepting this odd contract, the governess heads off to the Essex and Bly House. At first, all is well and the governess settles in with the housekeeper, Mrs Grose, and Flora. Miles was at school but returns early for the holidays and then things begin to change. The ghosts of two former servants seem to haunt Bly House and the Governess believes that they wish to possess the souls of the children. She starts a battle to the death with the spirits, but is all as it seems or are these phantoms something more sinister than mere ghosts?
Based on a novella by Henry James, The Turn of the Screw is unusual when it comes to ghost stories as there is no real end. Usually, good triumphs over evil or vice versa. However, by the time this story finishes, it is left up to the audience to decide what may be reality and what may be the product of an off-kilter mind. Deciding to reduce the story to two actors felt like quite a brave decision but, thanks to the quality of those actors, worked very well. Nick Danan, in the roles of The Gentleman, Mrs Gross and Miles, was really excellent in creating those three characters as sentient human beings merely by his voice and facial expressions. And I have to say, if it hadn’t been for the programme biog, I would not have any clue that Ruth Ollman had only graduated from Guildhall this year. Her performance was so assured, confident and polished in what is a very intense role, that you would have thought she had been treading the boards for a good many years now. Definitely an actor to watch out for in the future.
The staging by Paul Lloyd was very sparse, merely a large chair and a bookcase. But when combined with Simon Gethin Thomas’ lighting – including the use of footlights – it was all very atmospheric and was only missing a working fireplace to make it perfect for a Victorian tale. My one criticism of the staging was, yet again, smoke continually being wafted about. I know it helps create an atmosphere but that can all be achieved by lighting, set and the actors. The stage at the Omnibus is quite large and Director James O’Donnell uses the space well, almost zoning it off so that you know if the cast are one side, they are outside the house, if on the other, then inside etc. A nice trick that worked very well.
All in all, The Turn of the Screw is a wonderful example of a Victorian ghost storytelling brought to life in a nearly flawless production. This is the first production from new company Strange Fish and they have definitely set the bar high for their future shows. As stories go, I have never changed my mind about what I was seeing so often. To the basic question, were the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw real? My answer is a definite yes/maybe/no, and I will stand by that until I have another revelation and change my mind again.
“a piece of theatre which is both hauntingly familiar yet timeless”
Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, first published in 1897, is a story that captures the zeitgeist of the late 19th Century. An era charmed by superstition, madness, and the early writings of Sigmund Freud, James’ novella is a tale of a house held together by belief, seduction, and childhood secrets. An unnamed governess travels to a country house to take care of two children, Flora and Miles, but soon shadows from the past return to disturb the idyllic setting.
Jeffrey Hatcher’s excellent adaptation, Directed by James O’Donnell, draws on the universal themes of innocence and corruption, and childhood terrors, creating a piece of theatre which is both hauntingly familiar yet timeless. On entering Omnibus Theatre’s intimate black box space the audience is confronted with a lone wingbacked armchair and a bookcase of old tomes, the set of all good storytelling, instantly drawing the audience in and setting the moody tone of the piece. The style of this minimalist set (Paul Lloyd), combined with simple yet sympathetic spotlighting (Simon Gethin Thomas), is sensitive to the era and allows focus for the naturalistic performances to shine through.
This two-hander is performed by Ruth Ollman, playing the Governess, and Nick Danan who skilfully takes on the roles of Master, Housekeeper, and the child Miles. Ollman gives a strong yet understated performance, lending the Governess a captivating and curious stillness. Despite scenes of heightened emotionality she never loses the audience by venturing into the realms of melodrama. Danan is mesmerising to watch, flawlessly flitting between the sweet and retiring Housekeeper and the seemingly sinister Miles, providing the audience with genuine chills. These transitions allow for the suspense to build and for tensions to be broken, giving the audience fleeting moments of psychological relief. The pair’s ability to add flashes of humour also provides contrast and lightness to this otherwise dark and troubling tale. Despite a few fumbled lines both actors gave compelling performances, using James’ lyrical language and a diary entry structure to lead the audience seamlessly through the twisted plot.
With a timeless tale, subtle staging and captivating performances, Strange Fish Theatre Company have produced a wickedly good yarn for modern day audiences.