Review by Rosie Holmes
As the 25th anniversary of The Good Friday Agreement draws closer, Under the Black Rock looks back at 1978 Belfast during the height of The Troubles. A large black rock is suspended over the action, metaphorically looming over a community trapped both geographically and emotionally.
Written by Tim Edge, the play opens with 4 people, bags over their heads, setting the scene for what’s to come; an intense and often violent 2 hours. The piece follows a divided family, The Ryan’s. Violent father Cashal has IRA affiliations and has convinced, sweet son, Alan to join him, despite both sister Niamh and mum Sandra’s pleas for him to be kept safe. After Alan is imprisoned, angry at her parents, Niamh too becomes radicalised and we follow her as she transforms from naïve young recruit to a hardened extremist.
The piece covers a lot of ground, from family dynamics to IRA cell meetings and some intensely violent scenes. Whilst individually the scenes are all well delivered, unfortunately the narrative does become somewhat confusing. Even with some background knowledge of The Troubles, it was at times increasingly hard to keep up.
Perhaps with the exception of Evanna Lynch’s Niamh, there is little to engage us with the characters of Edge’s story. Archetypal characters; a violent and drunk father, ruthless thug and a morally ambiguous priest, are introduced with unfortunately little depth. Whilst the cause is at the centre of the show we are never really told what the cause actually is, or our character’s reasons for fighting for their fight, which had been expanded upon would have allowed for a group of more engaging individuals.
Evanna Lynch’s Niamh is the only character in the play whose motives we really understand, providing her with a sense of integrity that creates a greater depth to her character. Niamh is fighting for her brother, “the sweetest boy there ever was”, and a conversation at the finale of the play allows us even more understanding of her motives and actions (but I won’t give too much away).
One of the strengths of the play is its often-shocking twists and turns, whilst the first half is occasionally confusing in its narrative, the second half of the play is exciting and keeps us guessing throughout. In fact after one twist was revealed I even gasped in my seat. Again though, a slightly clearer narrative could have made these twists and turns even more effective, as those handled well really do form an exciting story.
Evanna Lynch, most famous for her role as Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter films, features as Niamh Ryan. Hugely different from her airy role in the popular franchise, Lynch delivers an accomplished performance, poised throughout even as she becomes more and more corroded by the violence around her. Lynch stars alongside scene stealer Flora Montgomery as her mother. Montgomery really shows off her talents in this piece, able to portray both heartbroken mother, as well as composed and fearless cell leader Bridget.
Montgomery is slightly let down by the direction of the play here. Montgomery effortlessly switches between both her roles, often with only the removal of her coat, her body language and mannerisms completely transform. However, the character change happens often without Montgomery even leaving the stage which did prove a little confusing. I even overheard some audience goers discussing the fact that it took them most of the first half to realise she was playing two roles. Again, this is not down to Montgomery’s acting, just some direction that could potentially be altered.
Jordan Walker too provides a wonderful performance, opening and closing the show with a traditional Irish folk song, showcasing not just his acting talents but his gorgeous voice. However, again some directorial choices do let him down. The choice to have him play both Niamh’s beloved younger brother, then her love interest and fellow IRA member in such quick succession felt quite jarring and made the latter character less believable.
Elizabeth Counsell provides some comic relief, as the elderly Mary O’Brien, proving what excellent comedic timing she has, her lines peppered with sardonic wit. However, she later really shows she is here for more than just laughs as she provides one of the most chilling scenes I have ever seen in a theatre alongside Flora Montgomery.
The set, design by Ceci Calf is mostly sparse, a table successfully acts as a death bed, family dining table as well as a desk at the centre of IRA negotiations. Most effective, however is the large black rock that looms over the action (representative of the black mountain that overlooks Belfast). A visual allegory, the rock serves as a reminder that the community and particularly the Ryan family are, as Cashel himself says trapped by the place in which they grew up.
Cinematic visuals are extremely effective in this piece. Scenes towards the latter end had my heart racing more than I think any piece of theatre has done before. In fact, at points I was pleased for occasionally poor sightlines as otherwise I may have had to watch some of the more harrowingly violent scenes through my fingers. This is accomplished through Ben Kavanagh’s mainly successful direction (aside from the character transitions) and light design by Joseph Ed Thomas. Spot lights are used to intensify interrogation scenes and shadows and darkness are used to create a world that too is full of shadows and darkness.
This is a play that showcased some outstanding performances from its cast. A piece that did genuinely have me on the edge of my seat at times and a show that’s visuals were exquisitely delivered. The play aims to serve ‘as a timely warning form history’ and often delivers some effective messages. However, I can’t help but feel a greater explanation of the politics and cause behind the fight that unites or characters would make for a more effective and easier to follow piece.
Under the Black Rock plays at The Arcola Theatre until 25th March 2023, tickets can be purchased here- Under the Black Rock - Arcola Theatre
Photos by Gregory Haney