A Night In November

Patrick Kielty comes of age in a timely and energetic performance, says David McLaughlin

There are many reasons to harbour a dislike for Patrick Kielty. From cherubic, smart-alec routines on PK Tonight many moons ago, to rubbing shoulders with the delectable Ms Kelly Brook on the vacuous Love Island, his journey to becoming one of Northern Ireland’s most recognisable exports has come dangerously close to being executed with an inescapable, cloying smugness. Until now, that is.

That Marie Jones’ A Night In November has been wowing audiences across the UK and US since 1998 is testament to the play’s strength, its emotional potency and touching observations of both time and place.

With the added artistic pedigree of director Ian McElhinney (Weddins, Weens and Wakes) and producer Martin Lynch (The History Of The Troubles According To My Da) Mr Kielty - on his first foray into the world of straight acting, no less - seems like a square peg of a casting choice.

Might his household name and celebrity overshadow the role? Would his lack of on-stage acting experience withstand the rigours of an almost three-hour, one-man performance? The decision was either going to prove a brave masterstroke or a gargantuan failure.

Set in  in 1994, A Night In November tells the story of Kenneth Norman McCallister, a member of the Protestant community in Belfast, where he supports his family as a workaday clerk at the local dole office. The only spark of excitement in his otherwise mundane and predictable life is his imminent acceptance as a member of the local golf club, ahead of his Catholic boss, Gerry.

But even that minor achievement is sullied by the knowledge that the unspoken advantage of his heritage seals the deal, a sorry fact exploited by his wife as a means of keeping up with the Joneses. In short, Kenneth is an unhappy man, suffering something of a mid-life crisis.

The crisis is exacerbated on a fateful night at Windsor Park when Kenneth takes his father-in-law, Ernie Thompson, to see a World Cup qualifier between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Standing amongst the hometown faithful, Kenneth is struck by the bile and depth of sectarian hatred in the chants of his fellow countrymen, particularly those of his wife’s father (hilariously brought to life by Kielty).

A crushing sense of shame and embarrassment fills him as Ernie starts a repulsive, bigoted singalong of ‘Trick Or Treat’ in the stands, recalling the horrific Greysteel massacre of 1993.

Afterwards, the incident feeds upon Kenneth's crumbling psyche like a virus, subsequently disturbing the brittle foundations of everything that defines his sense of self: his wife, his kids, his job and his place in the community. It is here in the play’s weighty mid-point that Jones’ writing shifts into turbo.

Some of the questions Kenneth asks prompts uncomfortable shifting in the seats, the drama relayed all too close to home. But just as effective is how she makes us laugh at ourselves through Kenneth. It is that poignant mix of funny and sad turning on the dime that really deems A Night In November a resounding success.

Kenneth’s journey of self-discovery leads to a bold decision and a riotous, fish-out-of-water coda in which Kielty shines. Some of the political undertones and characteristic binaries Jones presents are a touch ham-fisted (particularly the borderline insult of the clichéd Republic fans in the final third) but the balance struck between humour and thought-provoking theatrics is enough to excuse the minor quibbles.

Special praise must go to Kielty in a role previously dominanted by Dan Gordon and Marty Maguire. Kielty’s opening night performance is boundlessly energetic, full of life and entirely believable, not to mention the relative ease with which he juggles nearly three hours' worth of dialogue (requiring many different, difficult accents). The versatility and emotional efficacy he displays comes as a total surprise and is a genuine pleasure.

In 2007, A Night In November is a timely reminder of Northern Ireland's not-too-distant, yet oddly quaint past. In these Healey-fuelled days of a family-friendly Windsor Park, it would be nice to believe that NI has distanced itself from its sectarian past. A nice thought, but ultimately naïve. Proof that Jones’ play is as relevant as ever.