Chronicles of Long Kesh

Whatever your political convictions, Martin Lynch's latest drama makes arresting viewing

At times soul-revue, but mainly historical docu-drama, Martin Lynch’s latest opus, Chronicles of Long Kesh, is a strangely affecting theatrical hybrid. Using contemporary pop songs of the 60s and 70s to cut-up the dramatic narrative, Lynch’s play explores one of the darkest and most divisive periods of our shared past.

The story begins more or less with internment in 1971 and brings us up to 1984, on the way taking in landmark events such as the hunger strikes.

The narrator – rookie prison officer and Everton fan Freddie, is a gentle Protestant voice and sympathetic fulcrum for the play, imparting insights, exposition and introductions to keep the drama rolling along and to effectively expedite the convoluted history of events.

Music plays a key part in the play - if you’d just walked in during a number, you would be forgiven for thinking that it was musical theatre.

All accomplished singers, the cast bellow out renditions of Smoky Robinson, The Four Tops and Free, peppering scenes with impromptu song and dance routines, both showing dramatically how important music was for moral amongst the prisoners and also technically breaking up scenes.

It’s a curious yet effective jarring technique which causes the audience, stopping just short of clapping along, to spontaneously applaud each number.

Direction is tight with Lynch taking the reins alongside first-time collaborator Lisa May of Bruiser Theatre Company. May brings Bruiser’s trademark exaggerated physicality and dynamism to bear here and the pace of the play really benefits from it.

The characters are all likeable and, in their way, each is typical prison story staple. Republican characters include the comedy idiot, the stoic troubled soul, and the loveable rogue. On the loyalist side you have the idealistic Dylan fan hardened by events on the street and the simplistic grunt. 

All are present and correct here but lifted out of the ordinary by the uniformly superb performances of the cast. Special mention must go to Marc O’Shea’s delightful comedy turn as the endearingly out-of-his-depth idiot Toots and Chris Corrigan’s tormented, principled Eamon.

Lynch injects much humour into his script, relieving audience and the characters’ tensions with some lovely one-liners – even about the dirty protests.

As prisoner Oscar gets creative with his excrement daubing, adding a mantelpiece, flowers and even three flying geese to his walls, he muses whether he might be entitled to an arts council grant.

The play, perhaps deliberately, often leaves us as distanced as the prisoners are from contemporaneous events on the outside world. Lines like ‘we are striving for freedom and dignity’ or ‘what does any decent man do when his country is under threat?’ ring perhaps that little bit hollow on the stage as we have no discernable context within the play to truly appreciate the characters’ motivations.

A particular example is when republican Eamon, on the blanket, gets a first visit from his wife in two years. After a terse re-acquaintance, she expresses her support for him, to which he replies that it’s brave of her to visit him and stand by him ‘especially if you disagree with what I’m doing’.

It sometimes seems like faux-historical document, spooning out bite-size chunks of history rather than a play exploring the political complexities and human tragedies of the IRA’s war against the British.

Lynch’s greatest feat, however, is to turn the political into the personal. 

The scenes where the republican prisoners get word that the blanket protest is to be escalated to hunger-strike are truly horrific. The repeated plea from Oscar to Eamon that ‘nobody needs to die’ chills to the bone, especially as we the audience know the grim outcome.

Whatever your political conviction, the waste of the armed struggle has a lasting resonance. 

It throws up questions many may still not want to answer – questions such as 'was it worth it?' In these 'post-conflict' times, Chronicles of Long Kesh is a timely reminder of how far we’ve come since then, but also reminds us that the journey is far from over.