Tinderbox Theatre Company

Producing challenging performances

Tinderbox Theatre Company is one of Northern Ireland’s leading independent theatre companies, producing challenging new writing, often on difficult or demanding themes, and increasingly on a site specific basis.

Founded in 1988, Lalor Roddy, Tim Loane and Stephen Wright set out to create ‘challenging theatre not ordinarily seen in Belfast’. From the first, the company was viewed as the ‘germ of something exciting’ (Theatre Ireland), producing works by writers such as Howard Brenton and Edward Bond. Rapidly, however, it moved towards specialising in new and Irish writing, launching a Festival of New Writing in 1989. This ran annually until 2000, with rehearsed readings of new works as the centrepiece of each year’s programme. It proved a popular and quite unpredictable event, with some works being subsequently taken to full production.

Meanwhile, the company also revived work by playwrights including, most notably, Stewart Parker. His Catchpenny Twist was given its Northern Ireland premiere in 1990. ‘Witty, intelligent, vigorous and a joy to watch’ (Fortnight), it was revived and toured by Tinderbox to tremendous enthusiasm. An award winning production of Pentecost followed in 1994, received as both timely and ‘one of those moments of sustained revelation that are the real, but very rare, reward of regular theatre-going’ (Irish Times).

Finally, in 1998, Tinderbox and Field Day collaborated on a production of Parker’s Northern Star. Staged in the year of the Good Friday Agreement and the Omagh bombing, and during the bi-centenary of the 1798 rebellion, it was performed at Belfast’s historic First Presbyterian Church. Such resonances gave the play, with its theme of history as potential liberator or captor, an urgent topicality.

In addition to the works of Parker, Tinderbox have also revived work by writers including Robin Glendinning (Donnyboy, 1991), David Ashton (Bright Light Shining, 1993), Frank McGuinness (Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, 1995) and Brian Friel (Faith Healer, 1996).

The company has more often attracted attention, however, for its premieres, often of work by writers at an early stage of their careers. These have included Marina Carr, whose work This Love Thing was co-produced with Dublin’s Pigsback company in 1990, and Gary Mitchell, whose first play, Independent Voice (1993), was the company’s next premiere. A thriller set in a journalism office, it was highly praised as ‘absorbing and gripping’ (the Belfast News Letter). A co-production with Belfast’s Lyric Theatre followed: the subsequent Galloping Buck Jones by Ken Bourke (1994) proved a successful light-hearted, swaggering and ‘imaginative free flight’ (Irish Times).

Daragh Carville’s Language Roulette (1996), a fast talking punchy drama set on ‘Pound a Pint night’ against the backdrop of the celebrations of the first IRA ceasefire, was thought ‘inspired, deceptively subtle behind its up front bile and cracked humour’ (The Guardian). Another Carville premiere, Dumped (1997), looked at love and relationships, while Joseph Crilly’s Second Hand Thunder (1998) and On McQuillan’s Hill (2000) both addressed themes of cross-community relations in mid-Ulster. John McClelland’s Into the Heartland (1998) centred on family relationships, while Ian McElhinney’s one-man show, The Green Shoot (1999), was based on the poetry and prose of writer John Hewitt and the diaries of his wife, Roberta. Marie Jones’ Ruby (2000) told the bittersweet story of Ruby Murray, the Belfast singer and ‘Heartbeat Girl’. 

More recently, and since Northern Star, the company has worked on a succession of site-specific presentations. Notably, these have included Convictions (2000), a large-scale award-winning project at Belfast’s infamous Crumlin Road Courthouse involving many leading creative artists. Viewed as a flagship production, this took audiences on an ‘unforgettable experience’ (Guardian) through the courtrooms, cells, canteen, urinals and foyer of the historic building, to watch works by Marie Jones, Gary Mitchell, Owen McCafferty, Nicola McCartney, Daragh Carville, Martin Lynch and Damian Gorman.

A second site-specific devised work, No Place Like Home (2001), with text by Owen McCafferty and directed by Simon Magill, dealt with the theme of refugees, and particularly the movement of people in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. Another, Massive (2002) by Maria Connolly, staged in a public bar, brought together rap and the history of Northern Ireland, while a series of play-readings on the theme of voting, Vote Vote Vote (2003), took place in Belfast City Council’s chambers, among other locations. 

More recently, Tinderbox has premiered the award-winning Caught Red Handed (2002) by Tim Loane, a farce set in 2005 with Ulster preparing to vote on a referendum on a United Ireland, described by the Irish News as a ‘multi-media, quick-changing, pistol-whipping onslaught’. Meanwhile, the company has also staged Owen McCafferty’s adaptation of Ionesco’s The Chairs (2003), an ‘angular, fragmentary and non-realistic’ work (Irish Times), while Michael Dukes’ Revenge was staged in 2004. Barbara Adair’s excellent performance in Revenge was recognised with a prestigious Theatre Management Association Award for Best Supporting Actress on October 17, 2004. The play was also nominated for an award.

Overall, Tinderbox has been described as ‘sparky … and in handling such incendiary material, a brave lot too’ (Daily Telegraph on Caught Red Handed). Its works are very often accompanied by public discussions, debates and publications. Criticism has focused on a periodic over-ambition in presentation and form, as well as the company’s heavy focus to date on works with strong political, social and historic resonances. Conversely, Tinderbox has also won high praise for this emphasis, as a theatre company that presents 'significant plays of enormous relevance to the society surrounding it’ (Sunday Tribune), featuring ‘Ulster artists [who] are trying to grapple honestly with a deeply uncomfortable past’ (The Guardian on Convictions).

By Martin Mooney