Belfast shipyards in the 1950s were unruly places. Flourishing under the frenzied scramble for ship construction, Harland and Wolff (the yard most famous for building the Titanic), sets the scene for the latest offering of Irish theatre from the Finborough Theatre: Over the Bridge.
Playwright Sam Thompson wrote this frank account of shipyard life in 1957, sparing none of the gory details about the ongoing - and at times fatal - rift between Catholic and Protestant yardmen working under the same trade union. At this time, poverty was commonplace, unemployment soared, and unions worked hard to give all a fair opportunity to make a living.
This production of Over the Bridge is the first in London for over 50 years, and deserves the airing that it receives at the Finborough. A large cast tackle the nuances of the dialogue well, despite the language being rather dry and information-heavy in the first couple of scenes. After a slow start, however, the story really begins to warm up, unfolding the various lengths that individuals are prepared to go to when they hold a grudge - and how quickly things can spiral out of control.
Director Emma Faulkner handles the presentation of alpha-male, testosterone-imbued characters in the play with as much sensitivity as possible. However, there is a large amount of noise between various characters that tends to lose its impact after a while, making the female characters in this play a breath of fresh air when they step onto stage. In fact, much of the fascination with this era comes from the repercussions that the cat-fights in the shipyard have on the normality of domestic family life.
Amy Molloy for instance, playing Marian, gives a heartbreaking account of the effect that her father's ongoing unemployment had on her family when she will a little girl. Kevin Murphy is also noteworthy for his portrayal of the victimised Catholic Peter O'Toole, revealing an understated intensity and conviction that is somehow more believable than the rantings and raving of the other characters.
In all, Over the Bridge successfully depicts the horror and frustrations associated with 1950s life in Belfast. Yet the impact of the events in the play is cut short by the abrupt ending, which gives no time for reflection or a kindling of hope for the future, leaving the viewer to carry this sense of frustration home with them.