The Interrogation of Ambrose Fogarty

One of Northern Ireland's most controversial plays returns to the Grand Opera House

It’s hard to believe that when Martin Lynch’s The Interrogation of Ambrose Fogarty was first performed 25 years ago, it shocked and enraged audiences to the point of walking out. But this is not same Northern Ireland and, in many ways, this is not the same play.

Set in a west Belfast police station in the 1970s, the play tells the story of two very different suspects held in police custody for 72 hours.

Ambrose Fogarty, played by Chris Heaney, is a political activist falsely accused of armed robbery. Willie Lagan, played by Conor Grimes, is a half-witted pub-musician caught in the chaos between rioters and police. Both men are physically assaulted by their captors, members of the RUC as it was then, intent on using any means necessary to get a confession.

From the moment Grimes steps onto the stage at the Grand Opera House the audience are in stitches. And for the next 90 minutes every gag is ruthlessly milked, ensuring that rarely is Grimes on a stage not filled with laughter.

The strength of Lynch's original production was its ability to mix tragedy with humour. This created an absorbing drama. However, this time around director Mark Lambert seems more interested in playing it for laughs. The result is a play lacking in any real substance.

At one point when an interrogator plants his boot on the edge of Fogarty's chair and growls, 'Every time you tell a lie I'm gonna kick you in the ballicks!', the audience erupts in laughter. This is the response sought by the director in too many scenes.

Not that the play is devoid of drama. When Jackie, played by Tony Devlin, his face burning with menace, tears off Fogarty's briefs, knocks him to the ground and then erupts in an outburst of language which would shock Tony Soprano, the audience are stunned in silence. Scenes of such abuse of police power were what enraged audiences in the 1980s and they still have the ability to shock.

BJ Hogg 's Stanley is the interrogation room's alpha male, casually encouraging his team to pull Fogarty's arm out of his socket if they need to. The actor performs with gravitas and professionalism.

Although a little manic in the first half, Heaney delivers a layered performance in the second. But it is, of course, Grimes who steals the show. On opening night, the audience guffawed and hooted at his every syllable and exaggerated gesture, and the standing ovation of the night was arguably down to his efforts. It was a powerful comic performance but it overpowers the rest of the play, smothering any sense of tension.

The Interrogation of Ambrose Fogarty is a brave and important play from one of our most original voices. However, this latest production is a weak and soulless affair, robbing the play of passion, fire, a genuine sense of danger and the desire for its voices to be heard.

With visitors flocking to Belfast to see the Troubles murals, perhaps it’s no coincidence that this summer’s offerings at the Opera House have included A Night in November and The Interrogation of Ambrose Fogarty, both allowing audiences a comfortable glimpse at the dark days of our recent past.

Watching this latest production of Ambrose Fogarty is like watching a punk band from the 1970s, grown fat and comfortable, having reunited for the cash from a one-off gig.

Brendan Deeds