The Waiting List

A prime opportunity to see an early work from one of Northern Ireland's most important playwrights

While present-day Belfast may be bright, brash and booming, The Waiting List, one of Owen McCafferty's earliest works, revisits the dark days of the 1980s.

In this play, the dystopian nature of the city at that time is revealed in the reflections of a man who is waiting to find out if his name is on a paramilitary hit list.

Since writing The Waiting List in 1992, McCafferty’s career has progressed to ever greater critical acclaim. Speaking at an evening performance of this Jigsaw production (which also ran over two lunchtime slots at Belfast's Black Box) the playwright commented that while he felt happy that the play ‘still works after 15 years, the subject matter belongs to a different era’.

Certainly, the play stands up almost two decades after the first production. That it does so is down to McCafferty’s snappy dialogue, pockmarked with characteristic moments of genuine humour. The lines are excellently delivered by Paul Kennedy as the play's only character.

Despite living in a supposedly mixed housing estate, the unnamed Catholic strongly suspects that he is in the sights of Loyalist paramilitaries. It is for this reason that we find him trawling through his past to try to discover which act of sectarian treachery has warranted such unwelcome attention.

Paul Kennedy in Owen McCafferty's 'The Waiting List'With a sharp eye for detail and great comic timing, McCafferty evokes the confusion and alienation of growing up in Belfast during the Troubles. 

From being called a taig as a child to watching his favourite teacher being shot dead, sectarian lines have circumscribed the character's life path.

His brief dalliance with a Protestant girl ends almost before it begins when the IRA politely ask him to desist from such ‘anti-social action’.

From there he joins the IRA as an ‘education officer’, leaves almost as quickly, hangs out in the States with a gay Republican sympathiser before going to university and professing his allegiance to Marx and Communism.

Eventually the character puts philosophy and politics behind him, settling down to married life and a career in tiling. 

In The Waiting List, the fear of being next in line destroys the fragile domestic world the character has built. This constant unknowingness provides the play's dramatic motor.

McCafferty offers no resolution to this state of unknowingness and as the play closes the character is no wiser about either his fate or his crime.

Although the notion of a ‘waiting list’ thankfully belongs to another chapter in the story of Belfast, The Waiting List has much to offer contemporary audiences.

The play provides an important reminder of Belfast's unseemly recent past, one that is so often glossed over in tourist guides and property developer’s press releases. 

More than 20 years after it was written, productions of The Waiting List allow an opportunity to see an early work from one of NIs' most important playwrights.

Peter Geoghegan

The Waiting List is performed at the Errigal Inn, Ormeau Road, Belfast, March 26, and will appear as part of the 2008 Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.