UNDER THE BLACK ROCK at the Arcola Theatre
“This is ultimately an excellent play still in the works. With a lot of fine-tuning and a few cuts, it could be devastating and magnificent.”
All the elements are present for potential brilliance in this brutal story about the inner workings of the IRA, but due to a combination of some strange production choices and a slightly baggy script, it doesn’t quite come together.
Looking back at the chaos and turmoil during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Under the Black Rock highlights the messy blend of contradicting motives, lack of trust and inevitable in-fighting that took hold. Following the story of the Ryan family, we see how each member is torn apart, and their fates remoulded by actions of the IRA.
The performances are generally strong, and thankfully no-one’s struggling with the accent, which would have been wildly distracting. We begin and end with a rendition of The Dubliners’ Grace sung by Jordan Walker, which might have come across as beautifully mournful if Walker’s voice wasn’t so musical-theatre-ready. Instead, it feels a little saccharine in an otherwise grim and violent tale.
It’s a pleasure to see such a full cast at the Arcola, where one or two-person plays generally hold court. But for some reason, despite having eight people on stage, director Ben Kavangh has chosen to cast two main female roles with one actress, Flora Montgomery. Playing both the calm, head-strong IRA leader Bridget Caskey, and mother of the Ryan family, Sandra Ryan, she’s forced to play the roles to extremes, slipping between characters by merely removing her burgundy trench coat to reveal an oversized pastel cardigan. Where Bridget is understated and powerful, Sandra must inevitably be week and pathetic. At some point Sandra is referred to as “cool under fire”, but we don’t get to see any of that, because it would too closely resemble Bridget. Instead, her performance of Sandra is inevitably overwrought and wet.
Perhaps because this is loosely based on a true story, there’s a bit too much crammed in, and some of the main plot points are only glanced at. The death of Alan Ryan (Walker), for example, is only discovered in a later conversation, and I don’t think we ever hear how he actually died, which feels important given how it goes on to shape the rest of the story. Similarly, the fate of Fin McElwaine, also played by Walker, is only mentioned later, and the details never really explored.
Ceci Calf’s design sees a massive volcanic rock looming over the stage throughout. It’s effectively oppressive, if a little on the nose. The thrust staging isn’t quite used to full advantage, with a lot of the action taking place very close to the front, and long speeches given with backs turned to half the audience. It’s fine to bring the action so close if there’s enough movement, but so much of the script requires performers to stand their ground, quite literally.
This is ultimately an excellent play still in the works. With a lot of fine-tuning and a few cuts, it could be devastating and magnificent.
Reviewed on 6th March 2023
by Miriam Sallon
Photography by Gregory Haney
Previously reviewed at this venue: