Tag Archives: Elizabeth Counsell

Under the Black Rock

Under the Black Rock


Arcola Theatre

UNDER THE BLACK ROCK at the Arcola Theatre


Under the Black Rock

“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:


The Game Of Love And Chance | ★★★★ | July 2021
The Narcissist | ★★★ | July 2021
Rainer | ★★★★★ | October 2021
L’Incoronazione Di Poppea | ★★★★ | July 2022
The Apology | ★★★★ | September 2022
The Poltergeist | ★★½ | October 2022
The Mistake | ★★★★ | January 2023

Click here to read all our latest reviews


The Lady in the Van


Theatre Royal Windsor

The Lady in the Van

The Lady in the Van

Theatre Royal Windsor

Reviewed – 27th October 2020



“From the very first scene it’s plain just how wonderful Bennett’s writing is”


For its latest Covid-secure performance since reopening, Theatre Royal Windsor is this week staging Alan Bennett’s ‘The Lady in the Van’ which is presented by a cast of eight, reading from scripts behind microphones on stands. This forms part of their four latest ‘Windsor on Air’ shows.

The opening night crowd was good, with rigorous precautions ensuring their saftey.

‘She came for three weeks – she stayed for 15 years’. This film tagline describes Alan Bennett’s real life relationship with an elderly ex-convent novitiate and bag lady who took up residence in a mimosa-painted van on his front garden. Miss Shepherd was a less than fragrant woman of mystery, who increasingly came to dominate his existence up to her death in 1989.

The playwright (who is himself an actor) appears twice as a character in this piece, which was first published in prose the year of Miss Shepherd’s death. That Bennett is a ‘national treasure’ is entirely a truism, but the line deservedly reflects his droll way with words and his huge success with ‘The Lady’ and others including ‘The History Boys’, ‘Talking Heads’, ‘The Madness of King George III’ and ‘Habeas Corpus’.

It must be daunting for any performer who is asked to walk in the footsteps of either Bennett or another treasure, Dame Maggie Smith, who portrayed Miss Shepherd so memorably in the 2015 film. David Horovitch is the younger Alan – a name that “has as much flavour as a pebble”. He has some nice interplay with his older self who is writing the piece for us. RADA trained Matthew Cottle gives an uncannily good impersonation and both have accent and delivery just right. Jenny Seagrove did not reference Dame Maggie, but gave her own tremulous voiced and feisty interpretation of the part.

From the very first scene it’s plain just how wonderful Bennett’s writing is. But in this radio studio style performance, with the cast glued to microphone stands and their scripts, it all starts to get just a little bit samey by the end of the first half. The sparkling dry quips seem to pepper almost every speech, and I felt that on this particular opening night, the ensemble weren’t quite gelling as they should.

Things get better after the interval when some of the mystery about Miss Shepherd is revealed. Martin Carroll does sterling service as the Foley man (sound effects artist). Other cast members – Sara Crowe, Ashley D Gayle, Elizabeth Counsell (a memorable Mam) and Alan Howell all have their moments in the story. Roy Marsden directs this pleasant entertainment.


Reviewed by David Woodward

Photography by Simon Vail


The Lady in the Van

Theatre Royal Windsor until 31st October


Previously reviewed at this venue:
The Trials Of Oscar Wilde | ★★★★ | March 2019
Octopus Soup! | ★★½ | April 2019
The Mousetrap | ★★★★ | October 2019
The Nutcracker | ★★★★ | November 2019
What’s In A Name? | ★★★★ | November 2019
Ten Times Table | ★★★★ | January 2020
Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story | ★★★★ | February 2020
The Last Temptation Of Boris Johnson | ★★★½ | February 2020
The Black Veil | ★★★ | March 2020
Love Letters | ★★★★ | October 2020


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