Real stories told and acted by the men who experienced them 'illuminate the fragile nature of Northern Ireland's tentative peace'

An eight-year-old boy is trapped in a car. Around him, men fire machine guns as the boy's father, who popped out to get a pack of cigarettes, struggles to return to him. The car doors won’t open, however, and the boy drags himself into the back seat. He pulls so hard at the handle that it breaks in his hand.

Someone sets a parcel on the car bonnet. Dad breaks free of the masked men around him, pulls the boy out and rolls him across the road – just in time. The car blows up next to them. Both survive but, for years after, the boy continues to sneak into his parents’ wardrobe to examine the shrapnel hole pierced through his father's jacket at the time.

Such a story is but a drop in the ocean in terms of the Troubles, but the man onstage knows his life took a different turn that day, when the nail bombers robbed him of his emotional security. Panting with the after-effects of heavy emotion and bursting with energy, he shouts: 'Was I not worth an inquiry?'

Release is the story of six men who survived Northern Ireland’s years of political conflict during the latter half of the 20th century, and their lines carry a huge weight and power, for none of these men are actors. They are retelling their own true life stories.

Ex-prisoner and ex-governor alike – along with ex-detective, ex-soldier and ex-suspect – all sat down with Theatre of Witness artistic director Teya Supinuck in 2011 to mould their traumatic stories into a script. The resulting play comes just months after a Queen’s University report found that middle-aged men were the most likely to take their own lives in Northern Ireland, due specifically to the impact of the Troubles.

Currently touring Release around Northern Ireland, at this sold out performance at the Brian Friel Theatre at Queen's University, and as part of the Theatre of Witness method, audience members are encouraged to write responses to the piece, or speak to two 'listeners' after the show.

Ultimately an exploration of the emotional landscape of post-conflict Northern Ireland, the play focuses strongly on post-traumatic stress disorder, mental and emotional breakdowns, and the nightmarish paranoia that has dogged the men ever since.

Former Maze governor William McKee recounts a breakdown so severe that medical staff mistook it for a heart attack. It was brought on by years of long hours, prison protests, a death threat that resulted in a swift house move, and ultimately the death in prison of Billy Wright, who was murdered while McKee was on duty.

We hear from an ex-soldier, a cheery fellow with a London accent, who still misses the camaraderie among the troops but whose hands shake like leaves when he tries to light a cigarette. He says: 'Nothing can prepare you for the first time you face a rioting crowd. It’s almost physical, like you can feel the wall of hatred.'

To help recreate the soldier’s story, participants don helmets and camouflage, and ‘load’ machine guns made of arm-length sticks. They look like little boys playing with toy guns, but for them, these stories are all too real.

A political activist remembers that, in prison at the time, he was so sure his water was being poisoned that he drank his own urine instead. Another ex-prisoner asks himself what his history is, where he fits in life, what’s normal when there’s nothing to compare your reality to.

Crows scavenge a bomb site in search for food. Their arrival can make the job of locating bodyparts easier for the police. The ex-detective – who saw his own death in the milk bottles on his porch as well as under his car – worked on 172 murder investigations. He says: 'I have waited for more crows than I care to remember.'

It is hard for an audience to hear stories like these, and inevitably dry eyes are few and far between. To look at a man and hear him speak so honestly of his experiences brings the Troubles to life even for those too young to remember them. Release underlines just how far we have come in recent years, yet illuminates the fragile nature of Northern Ireland's tentative peace.

Paddy McCoey, who gives the stand-out performance of the night as the boy trapped in the car, returns to the stage to tell the audience that he met someone involved in the attack, years later, as an adult. 'I was just the driver. I tried to tell them there was a child in the car,' the man said. 'Do I believe him?' asks McCoey. 'Do I report him? Do I follow him home? How many guys are walking about out there like me?'

Release is a welcome exploration of the Northern Ireland conflict’s emotional legacy for the men involved. Hopefully its frank discussion of mental health problems can be a blueprint for the future.

A documentary of Release will be available on DVD and online in 2013. The next Theatre of Witness project, Women and War, comes the Playhouse Theatre in Derry~Londonderry in the coming months.