A Night in November, first shown in 1994 in Belfast before a London and an off-Broadway transfer, is as admirable a piece of work as Marie Jones' subsequent smash, Stones in His Pockets.
To say it's a one-man show is immediately to diminish it because, like Stones, where two men create a myriad of personalities, so here the stage is peopled with extraordinary individuals in extraordinary circumstances. There are venomous Protestant football hooligans in a Belfast stadium, Irish drunkards on a transatlantic flight - a kind of hell if ever there was one - and husbands and wives battling for the survival of the self in a confining suburbia.
Downtrodden Protestant dole clerk Kenneth McCallister leads a humdrum life full of prejudice against his Catholic co-patriots, openly exulting against "Fenian" social security applicants, and enjoying a few cultural bonuses for being on the right (British) side. But Kenny's moment of nemesis and the turning point for the drama occurs when he accompanies his primitive father-in-law to the 1994 World Cup. Suddenly (perhaps too suddenly), he realises just how animal and divisive the hatred for Belfast Catholics is and starts to want to change his life - and his ghastly house-proud, aerobic-obsessed wife, Debrah.
Marty Maguire gives an astonishing series of performances, the most moving one being of a man whose conscience is put on the rack when his prejudices start to crumble. Here the writing is as beautiful as the acting - moments of agonising pathos when Kenny he first visits his Catholic boss's house where he discovers that the other half lives rather freer than he does; when he summons the courage then fails to confront his wife about her narrow expectations; when he dares at last to escape, boarding a New York-bound plane to see the Republic of Ireland play Italy.
This first half is magnificent, powerfully wearing its pain and passion. It's also, as you might expect from Jones, very funny. The second half works if you're prepared to wallow in a lot of sentimental oirish bonhommie in the bars of New York and swim in a sea of nostalgia for the sweaty humanity of drunken men on the side of the winning team, a long way from home. While the majority of the audience seem to embrace the heart-warming "yes, anything is possible" denouement, the more cynical may find this a bit too rose tinted to be dramatically satisfying.
Either way, A Night in November remains great theatre, showing real lives caught up in a conflict where "they can blow you up with a device no bigger than a box of matches". Maguire's performance is a dizzyingly impressive tour de force. At the end, striving to overcome the Protestant/Catholic divisions within and around him, the actor asserts "I am an Irish man". Actually he was several. A one-man show? Impossible.
- Charlotte Birkett