Explosive stuff from an emerging playwright in the North West

With the passing of time and the progression of politics it could be considered that our conflict has lost some of its dramatic allure. For some of the more perceptive voices out there, however, it is really now, in the accounting and in the reflecting, that our recent past demands the closest attention.

Now we can begin to wonder what the real impact of such a corrosive contest will be for the many who were on the sidelines, caught up in circumstances beyond their ken and control.

This is the terrain covered by emerging playwright Tara McKevitt’s Grenades. This one-act monologue, which scooped the PJ O’Connor Radio Drama award when produced for RTE in 2010, has moved to the stage with an Irish and Scottish tour under the auspices of the Galway-based Mephisto Theatre Company.

The play opens in Derry's Playhouse Theatre and we are confronted with a spare set: a lone chair containing a lone character with her back to the audience and a clock, frozen at 3pm, on the wall. It is clear that this is to be a story free from distractions or directorial overkill.

Such a light touch is a nod to the play’s radio roots, of course, but also serves to create an intimate bond between actress and audience. It is just her and us. The 'her' in this case is Emma O’Grady, a Mephisto regular who turns in a fantastic performance as Nuala, an utterly convincing heroine who is at turns spiky, vulnerable, naïve, wise and is always compelling to watch.

Within seconds of our introduction Nuala is leading us back to her childhood in 1970’s small town Ireland, that may owe something to McKevitt’s own upbringing in a Donegal border town. Elements of both Northern and Southern life are apparent and a picture is painted of a close knit community that is evocative of Brian Friel or even Patrick McCabe in its suggestions of darker forces, hidden histories and unspoken truths lurking beneath the façade.

O’Grady’s skill is evidenced in the way in which we rapidly develop an affinity for Nuala – rooting for her in her dealings with a cast of locally drawn characters including Elaine Jam Jar Glasses and Sister Mary. Nuala navigates her past in a small town where everyone seems to know more about her than she knows about herself.

Our childhood journey with Nuala is warm, witty and defined by the unconditional love that perhaps only little sisters with absent father’s can feel for their big brothers. In this case the brother is Oran, who is introduced to us as Jesus Christ himself, undergoing crucifixion in the school play despite Nuala's howls of protest.

So it is perhaps inevitable that it is in this relationship that the drama will occur, yet when it does it is genuinely surprising – cutting against the mood and landing the audience back into the drab set with an immediacy that grips and engages.

It is in Oran's story that the underlying presence of the Troubles is brought to the fore and the real forces holding sway in the town are revealed. In a taut climax, McKevitt skilfully strips back the shell that she has constructed around Nuala to reveal a scared schoolgirl, alone and adrift in her changed world. Here, Nuala is forced into an impulsive defence of her brother that will shape the rest of her life and those around her.

Looking back on events through the prism of a post-conflict Ireland we are prompted to reflect on the manifold lives that were and are turned upside down by the Troubles. It is in this context, and for this reason, that Grenades is such a vital production. Whilst the clock on the wall in the play never moves, stuck at 3pm, it is clear that time is moving on for Nuala and for all of us.

Grenades was staged at the Playhouse Theatre, Derry on March 19 and is touring as follows: Cuirt Festival of Literature, Galway April 12-16, Nenagh Arts Centre, April 23 and Mayfesto at Tron Theatre, Glasgow, May 18-21.