A Christmas Night with George

A rumination on love, life and Long Kesh – Donna O'Connor shows how the Troubles affected Belfast's women

A yuletide version of A Night with George was as inevitable as taxi weather banter. Since the play premiered three years ago at Féile an Phobail, the sheer irresistible popularity of this one-woman rumination on life, love and Long Kesh has transformed it from mere theatre into a bona fide night out on the (lino) tiles.

After several years living, breathing and drinking on stage as Bridie Murphy, co-writer Donna O’Connor – who developed a script by Belfast playwright Brenda Murphy – has this ex-prisoner’s wife, mother, Royal Victoria Hospital nurse and champion of the Belfast Martini (vodka and diet coke) so firmly nailed that it defies innuendo.

And Bridie’s earthy character manages to steer clear of cringing cliché by having an emotional authenticity at her core. When she makes light of having a husband in prison and struggling to bring up a baby on her own, she does so because that’s what people do in these situations – adapt or die. It may be a well-worn tale, but it’s revisited for good reason.

So perfectly measured is O’Connor’s performance that at times you would be forgiven for forgetting that you’re not actually peeking into the present-strewn living room of a Ballymurphy two up two down on the night before Santa comes down the chimney.

As Bridie takes a Smirnoff-fuelled joy ride down memory lane, the life-size effigy of George Clooney – in perhaps his most wooden performance since Batman and Robin – looks on impassively. He acts as Bridie’s confessor, confidant and, heck, just somebody to share a drink with. He’s a captive audience, but then she is captivating.

As her revelations take a turn for the darker, George’s beguiling smirk becomes rather unsettling, as does the fact that Bridie talks to him constantly, offering him a top up, apologising if she’s going on a bit. But oddly, the device of confiding in a piece of cardboard draws the audience into her world all the easier – maybe it has something to do with how women see George Clooney, as a good guy in a bad world.

This is a show that knows the makeup of its audience intimately, and the ‘women of a certain age’ who comprise about 80 per cent of the punters at Theatre at the Mill get exactly what they’ve come for.

The show is confected from perfectly measured proportions of pathos, poignancy and pith, throws in a sing-a-long and a few ripe sex references for good measure, swirls it all up and pours itself generously. Like a good night out with old friends, it works because you’re in trusted hands, trading favourite reminiscences – with the reassuring familiarity of an emotional jukebox.

Which in point of fact makes it pretty hard to critique in terms of pure theatre. But if there was a critical observation to be made here, A Christmas Night with George's triumph perhaps lies in the tricky path it successfully negotiates about the pitfalls of saccharine exploitation.

Just when you think it might be about to set the controls to 'cheap prole parody' and even cheaper laughs, another well-turned line saves the day. 'Getting married on your birthday is like getting shot and stabbed at the same time,' says Bridie regretfully at one point. When she’s thinking back on her early courtship with husband Seamus, she recollects that he was 'the best rioter in Ballymurphy... a gladiator in Wrangler and a Ben Sherman shirt'.

It may not be the most insightful dissection of the armed conflict, but then it’s not supposed to be The History of the Troubles according to my Ma. It’s the tale of an ordinary Belfast woman surviving as so many ordinary women did: in extraordinary circumstances. Whilst the men played at being soldiers, their women were the real fighters – fighting to maintain family, livelihoods and relationships with men behind bars.

There’s a superficially funny but rather telling recollection here of how, when her auto-didactic republican warrior comes home to a peace-talks society, Bridie is seamlessly and callously traded in for a younger, more academic, English model as he strides off in pursuit of new-found, elected respectability.

The ironies and hypocrisies are too many to mention, but it speaks more broadly to the experience of women in Northern Ireland, for years often bearing the brunt, but sidelined all the same. Still, it gives Bridie a chance to rhyme 'vegetarian' with 'Presbyterian', which is just funny.

The final triumph of A Christmas Night with George is that, for all that it dwells on the past, and taps into our insatiable need to constantly revisit and repackage that strange place, it does so with its character firmly looking towards the future. As Bridie herself says: 'I know it won't sound great to you George, but it was.'

A Christmas Night with George runs in Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey, until January 5.