The 4th Country review – a swift, engaging production that features four exquisite performances

The Plain Heroines production continues its run at the Park Theatre until 5 February

The 4th Country at Park Theatre
The 4th Country at Park Theatre
© Mark Douet

The theatrical "fourth wall" isn't so much broken down as moved around at will, and sometimes abandoned altogether, in Kate Reid's punchy, impassioned new(ish) drama for the innovative Plain Heroines company. This female-led stage collective's mission statement is to "make funny plays about difficult subjects" and The 4th Country fulfils that brief admirably, if a tad unevenly.

The scene is Northern Ireland in 2019, the year that abortion was decriminalised there. It was also the year when the authorities announced that there was sufficient evidence to prosecute ‘Soldier F', the sole British soldier indicted in the infamous 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, which saw 26 unarmed Derry citizens killed or injured in an event from which the shockwaves still pulse through the community decades later. With considerable dramaturgical panache, initially at least, Reid weaves these events into a family mini-saga that also pinpoints the ongoing tensions and mistrust between Northern Ireland ("the fourth country") and mainland Britain, and does so with a bitter, rueful humour.

The play opens with a pair of freshly introduced female civil servants sizing each other up at the top of a pressurised new working day in the Northern Irish Department of Health. Their funny, barbed banter is interrupted by the news of a young woman's death and the arrival of her apoplectically furious brother who seems to have a prior connection with one of the women. What follows is anything but traditional storytelling, as Reid (who also plays one of the main roles) and her fellow actors slide in and out of character to argue about and comment upon the script and situations they're presenting.

The first time this happens it's a dazzling volte-face, genuinely wrong-footing a captivated audience. However, the law of diminishing returns applies as the evening draws on, and one increasingly longs to have them just get on with presenting the riveting, if occasionally confusing, story in hand. Finally, the plot is jettisoned in favour of having the actors recite a pair of lists: one, the names of men who lost their lives in ‘The Troubles' and the other of women who lost theirs thanks to the rigid, archaic pre-2019 abortion laws. At this point, theatrical artifice and sorrowful real life converge, and the effect is devastating.

It's not uncommon to sit through a piece of theatre and wish it was a bit shorter, but this meta-drama would really benefit from being somewhat longer in order to greater flesh out the characters, to realise its ambition and to further clarify the plot and its relationship to actual events. Gabriella Bird's fleet, engaging production features a quartet of exquisitely judged performances (Reid herself, also Aoife Kennan, Rachael Rooney and Cormac Elliott) at once fiercely passionate and pleasingly naturalistic.

Reid's dialogue has a satisfying snap and crackle, true to life but somehow more vivid and urgent, and she intelligently fuses the personal and the political, while also raising the intriguing issue of who has the right to tell these stories. Crucially, The 4th Country never trivialises what it dramatises. This is undoubtedly a writer and a company to watch out for.

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