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On McQuillan’s Hill


Finborough Theatre

On McQuillan’s Hill

On McQuillan’s Hill

Finborough Theatre

Reviewed – 6th February 2020



“all credit to the Finborough for once again recovering a work of such significance”


A pulsating rhythm and elegant lyricism pervade the English premiere of the unsettling and darkly comic “On McQuillan’s Hill” at the Finborough Theatre.

It causes a double-take because the content of Joseph Crilly’s 2000 play is far from calm and tranquil – indeed, the politics and passion behind its Northern Ireland setting would make one expect something more explosive.

But in this well-observed work everything is far more subtle, with tension simmering beneath the surface as six characters meet in an isolated community hall in rural Ulster after an IRA prisoner is released under the Good Friday agreement. It’s a drama where the shadow of sectarian violence somehow sits comfortably alongside news of a farmer who has grown a record-breaking cucumber.

The play was first performed at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, 20 years ago and it is unbelievable that such a truthful, ravishing and sometimes savage drama should have taken so long to cross the Irish Sea. So all credit to the Finborough for once again recovering a work of such significance.

An essentially uneasy domestic melodrama focussing on the Maline family slices into deeper themes of the bitter aftermath of the Troubles, malignant family history, sexuality, incest, guilt, betrayal and the legacy of ultimately futile conflict.

It’s an astonishing blend of brutality and beauty and while London may not fully comprehend the boldness and courage of that original Belfast production it’s hard to miss a rumbling contemporary resonance even as hard borders and political impasse hit the headlines.

Every character is distinctively painted in the text but director Jonathan Harden and an exemplary cast explore even greater depths to the always three dimensional roles. Behind the near mythical ambience there lie utterly credible characters. These are never less than real people with genuine lives and backgrounds.

At its heart are members of a dysfunctional family who in another world would be the subjects of a soap opera. Johnny Vivash is terrifically grizzled as the less than successful terrorist Fra Maline, a closet homosexual keen to find out why he was betrayed by former colleagues and more interested in rekindling a relationship with his ill-suited yet loyal lover Dessie (an edgy Kevin Murphy) than with his sister.

It is his sister Loretta (an emotionally charged Gina Costigan) who has bought the hall intending to convert it, but her reappearance after 20 years lifts the lid off a tureen of dark family secrets, including the long-questioned parentage of daughter Theresa (a charming and fiery Julie Maguire).

Into the mix comes the ex IRA commander Ray (a stirring and passionate Declan Rodgers)whose personal life trumps political ideology, while hovering in the background is formidable hall caretaker Mrs Tymelly (a quietly forceful Helena Bereen, who was in the original 2000 production).

Harden comprehends the unlikely humour and harsh undercurrents of this story, allowing the honesty of both story and performances to take centre stage.

The set (Norman Coates) is every inch the community hub of the past, destined to be pulled down, testimony to a discomforting past, with dimming bulbs and the detritus of past celebrations. A sombre portrait of Irish nationalist leader Robert Emmet gazes down from the wall, a reminder of past hopes and lost causes.

“On McQuillan’s Hill” still has the capacity to shock but this quality revival never loses sight of the human stories, a knowing sense of humour, and the beating heart of a nation seeking a new chapter in a troubled history.


Reviewed by David Guest

Photography by Bronwen Sharp


Finborough Theatre

On McQuillan’s Hill

Finborough Theatre until 29th February


Last ten shows reviewed at this venue:
Beast on the Moon | ★★★★★ | January 2019
Time Is Love | ★★★½ | January 2019
A Lesson From Aloes | ★★★★★ | March 2019
Maggie May     | ★★★★ | March 2019
Blueprint Medea | ★★★ | May 2019
After Dark; Or, A Drama Of London Life | ★★★★ | June 2019
Go Bang Your Tambourine | ★★★★ | August 2019
The Niceties | ★★★ | October 2019
Chemistry | ★★★ | November 2019
Scrounger | ★★★★ | January 2020


Click here to see our most recent reviews


A Lesson From Aloes

Finborough Theatre

A Lesson From Aloes

A Lesson From Aloes

Finborough Theatre

Reviewed – 5th March 2019



“There are some careful directorial choices that navigate the claustrophobia of the relationships”


A Lesson from Aloes begins with names: ‘names are not just labels’ says Piet, naming the only thing that survives droughts, his Aloe Vera plants. The play is deceptively simple. Set in 1963, a year after Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment in a sleepy, dry suburb of Port Elizabeth, Piet and his wife, Gladys are throwing Steve a small party to celebrate his being let out of prison. But at the height of apartheid, the friendship between a white Afrikaaner couple and a black man is fraught with difference. What follows is a story that examines what it means to belong somewhere.

Names are important in Athol Fugard’s writing, (see, for example, Sizwe Bansi is Dead) because they can demonstrate the crushing contradictions of both feeling displaced and rooted at the same time. Janet Suzman’s superb production at The Finborough brings out all the difficult and delicate debates of this rarely revived piece. As the play delves into questions relating to the limits of white liberalism and to the boundaries of friendship between different races and genders, the play feels very timely.

This is a story about a marriage and a friendship after a crisis. It is a story in which love and trust bear the burden of lost hope and disgrace. Fugard’s genius lies, however, in the relationships he creates, and Suzman’s direction is particularly sensitive to this. There are some careful directorial choices that navigate the claustrophobia of the relationships as well as the Finborough’s small stage.

Norman Coates’ set design adds to this atmosphere with a dominating sandy beige hue that acts as a stark contrast to the green Aloe plants which Piet treasures as a sign of survival. Coates’ clever staging also evokes the fundamental interplay of the private and public spheres for at its core, this play focuses on the moments when the political becomes deeply personal.

The cast are so in tune with one another that they feel like people with long, shared histories. Janine Ulfane delicately portrays Gladys, a woman broiling with a rage that cannot find an outlet. Opposite her, Dawid Minnaar wonderfully delivers the mild-mannered, kind and proud Piet. David Rubin’s Steve is bold and convincing. Disempowered by their gender and their race, respectively, Ulfane and Rubin give shape to two very different kinds of victims, with different ways of navigating their anger. This contrast brings out a very poignant ending.

This is a fearless and nuanced piece. As a slightly longer show of two hours, it has the time to gradually build relationships and then, to push them to their limits. Though South Africa seems far away, Suzman’s production has brought debates about race, gender and belonging to, what was last night, a remarkably all white audience. It seems like a very good time to explore whiteness, privilege and political engagement with the sharpness and diligence akin to Fugard’s.


Reviewed by Tatjana Damjanovic

Photography by Alixandra Fazzina


A Lesson From Aloes

Finborough Theatre until 23rd March


Last ten shows reviewed at this venue:
But it Still Goes on | ★★★★ | July 2018
Homos, or Everyone in America | ★★★★ | August 2018
A Winning Hazard | ★★★★ | September 2018
Square Rounds | ★★★ | September 2018
A Funny Thing Happened … | ★★★★ | October 2018
Bury the Dead | ★★★★ | November 2018
Exodus | ★★★★ | November 2018
Jeannie | ★★★★ | November 2018
The Beast on the Moon | ★★★★★ | January 2019
Time Is Love | ★★★½ | January 2019


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