Pride Before the Falls

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Review of 'A Night in November', by Marie Jones, Tricycle Theatre, London

Kenneth Norman McCallister is a Protestant 'dole clerk' living in Northern Ireland. He has been brought up to believe in the inherent superiority of Protestants over 'pope lovers' and 'Fenian bastards'--his Catholic neighbours who he has been told to patronise and dislike. But there is a problem. For all his fake pride, he realises his job is less secure than he was told, and he is beginning to question his attitude towards Catholics.

The moment of revelation comes when he accompanies his father in law to a football match between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Kenneth is disgusted at the bigotry--the screamed obscenities and abuse, and the shouting and taunting of Irish players with 'trick and treat' (the words uttered by Loyalist gunmen before they massacred Catholics in a Belfast pub).

Quickly Kenneth's identity--as a proud Protestant--unravels. Condemning his father in law he says, 'Sixty five years of salt in the earth bigotry and 65 years of being at the bottom of the heap.' The rest of his life soon follows. He resents his wife's refusal to confront the foulness of 'Ulster bigotry', and he builds a friendship with his Catholic supervisor, Jerry, at the dole office--who he has worked with for 15 years. At one point he humiliates an unemployed Catholic man who comes in to sign on, making him wait for a nonexistent appointment. When the man returns the following day and bitterly complains, 'How you could treat another human being like that?' Kenneth is left facing his sectarian upbringing. He resents himself for refusing to act. 'If I wasn't such a stupid, soulless man,' he says.

The second part of the play is his transformation. From the fragments of his broken life he takes on the bigots all around him. The ignorance of his community and the petty mindedness of his wife shock him. At his 34th birthday party he asks his assembled friends what they thought of the behaviour of Protestant supporters at the football game. To their astonishment he launches a blistering attack on bigots and the cowards who don't speak out--at last he has found the 'fucking balls to condemn them'.

When Kenneth takes Jerry home he drives for the first time along the Catholic Falls Road, between tanks and families. Taught to patronise and look down on Catholics, he ends up admiring Jerry: 'I live in the same country as him, but I envy him.' He envies his freedom from bitterness and hate, and his love for his wife.

The final part of the play sees Kenneth drive across the border to Dublin and fly to New York for the World Cup game between Ireland and Italy--'to be', he declares, 'an Irishman.'

This is a startling and brilliant play about the regeneration of a broken and crooked humanity. It is told through the story of an 'ordinary' man who finds the 'fucking balls' to condemn his old world.

Marty Maguire gives an astonishing one-man performance, playing by turns the drunk football fan, the crowds of Irish supporters in New York, and his revolting father in law. He does it on an almost empty stage, bare except for three steps painted red, white and blue. The play walks a tense and exhilarating tightrope between moments of great humour and poignancy. As the playwright, Marie Jones, confesses, 'I write about ordinary people. The people I write for are the people in my plays. I love to be described as a populist playwright.' Her plays are explicitly about working class life in Belfast, and the poverty, despair and hope shared by both Catholics and Protestants.

At the end of the play Kenneth tells his Catholic friend who he met for the first time on the way to the States about his true identity. As the lights dim in the theatre he announces, 'I am a Protestant but I am an Irishman.'