The Maze prison at Long Kesh (Long Meadow) outside Lisburn, County Down, had a relatively short but dramatic history dating from 1971 to 2000, when the last prisoners were released. It was mostly demolished eight years later and remains notorious for the IRA hunger strikes of 1980-81, when strike leader Bobby Sands was the first to die, 25 days after being elected as an MP.
Martin Lynch’s Chronicles of Long Kesh recreates the turbulent political history of those days through the lives of five inmates, their wives, and various other characters, both Republican and Loyalist, in a helter-skelter production reminiscent in style of the mould-breaking Oh! What A Lovely War.
Scenes blend seamlessly into each other as the years pass and the performers break into perfectly harmonised a cappella versions of Smokey Robinson hits, which serve as commentary on the action. The show is at once joyous, scary, comical, vicious and poignant. It’s not often that one can apply such a medley of adjectives to the same play and have them all carry equal weight.
It’s also very one-sided, of course. Maggie Thatcher is evil personified and the Republican paramilitaries are all long-suffering, misunderstood men who miss their wives and children while they smear their walls with excrement in protest at British Government policy. This is not an evening for moral debate about cold-blooded killing, but it is powerful theatre, containing a multiplicity of finely-drilled performances.
The pivotal figure is that of the ineffectual prison officer Freddie Gillespie (Billy Clarke), who links the whole story together, whilst himself turning to drink to cope with the experiences he undergoes. It’s an oddly goggle-eyed, innocent-abroad kind of portrayal, delivered in a semi-crouching position, as if he’s about to run for his life at any moment.
The plumber Eamonn, who goes on to become OC of his wing, is given both tremendous heart and tremendous hardness by Chris Corrigan. The concert-organising Oscar, who eventually cracks under the strain of the hunger strike deaths, and the slow-witted Toot, who communes with seagulls, are both beautifully realised by Marty Maguire and Marc O'Shea respectively. Andy Moore as hypochondriac Hank and Jo Donnelly as the taxi-driver murderer Thumper - and a string of doughty wives - are equally outstanding.
The show is directed by the writer and Lisa May with tremendous pace, gusto and conviction. Even if your political views are way out of line with those under examination here, this is an ensemble performance to savour.