The History of the Troubles

As topical and hysterical as ever – accordin' to Jill Black this is no ordinary history lesson

The much-loved comedy by Martin Lynch and Grimes & McKee returns to the Belfast stage, updated, rejuvenated and as raucous as ever. This is a local play for local people – as Tubbs from The League of Gentlemen might say – and the Grand Opera House crowd are more than up for a few belly laughs tonight.

The History of The Troubles takes us through the momentous events in Northern Ireland’s difficult back-story, as seen through the eyes of Belfast man, Gerry Courtney, played by broadcaster and actor, Ivan Little.

The remaining colourful characters are all brought to life by comedy duo Conor Grimes and Alan McKee, in a quite remarkable feat of tongue-twisting, accent-affecting, gender-bending brilliance. Grimes and McKee have been writing and performing together for years, and (questionable insurance adverts aside) they have built up a reputation as one of Northern Ireland’s funniest entertainment teams.

The simple set is adorned with images from Northern Ireland’s recent history. Pictures of Gerry Adams, the Maze Prison, and the Falls Road Bobby Sands mural hang alongside less politically potent photographs, such as Van The Man and Bob Dylan. The play begins with Gerry celebrating the birth of his son in the Royal Hospital in 1969.

Ivan Little has made this part his own, and he plays it with understated poignancy, taking on the responsibility for delivering the play’s more serious observations. That’s not to say he doesn’t get laughs. The first spontaneous applause of the evening goes to Little for his hilarious Mick Jagger impression. Watching the veteran journalist strutting about the stage, lips protruding and hands-on-hips, is truly a sight to behold.

The majority of chortles come from Grimes and McKee, though. Grimes only has to glance at the audience (particularly in his guise as Fireball, Gerry’s darts-obsessed nutball friend) to have the entire room in hysterics. I’m hard-pressed to think of a funnier character in Northern Irish theatre.

McKee more than matches Grimes’ comedic prowess by exhibiting his own take on various Belfast stereotypes including the (frankly terrifying) fishwife Maggie Morrelli and Felix, Gerry’s wannabe-IRA man neighbour.

The play is bunged full of local colloquialisms and in-jokes. Anyone going to see it that isn’t already aware of the events of our troubled past will undoubtedly learn a few things, but this is definitely a story for folk who have lived through the Troubles.

It covers all the major landmarks and headlines, including the beginning of the struggle, the hunger-strikes, Thatcher's questionable reign, and Gerry Adams’ dubbed television appearances, right up to more modern history covering Iris Robinson’s unfortunate affair, arms decommissioning, and the Martin McGuinness/Ian Paisley love-in at Stormont.

Any moments of wretched misery are just long enough for the audience to respectfully recall the event, but we are never kept too long in the doldrums, with Grimes or McKee invariably punctuating the seriousness with an outrageous comment designed to provoke hoots of laughter.

It’s the attention to detail that makes these characters spring into caricatured life. From the stereotypical ‘spide walk’ and broad Belfast pronunciation of ‘dirty’ as ‘dorty’ or ‘three’ as ‘thee’, to references such as the scantily-clad ladies on old cans of Tennents lager and the joys of toasted Veda, the play is brimful of priceless local observances.

It’s as fast-paced as it gets, and all three actors deliver their lines with a smooth professionalism. There is no interval, and it’s all over in an hour and a half, which doesn’t seem long to depict the chronicle of 40 odd years in Northern Ireland, but then this is no ordinary history lesson.

The History of The Troubles (Accordin’ to my Da) runs at the Grand Opera House, Belfast until 12 November.