It still amazes me to see a theatre space so utterly transformed between visits. Just a few weeks previously I’d been at the Finborough Theatre and the place felt tiny and cramped, intentionally so for the show at hand. Yet returning again now, the same four walls felt open, even the packed benches felt more spacious. It gave the perfect feel of a small community hall, the sole location for all two hours of On McQuillan’s Hill: a credit indeed to the theatre and set designer Norman Coates.
It’s in those four walls of the rundown community hall that we bear witness to so much over the course of the two days in which the story is set. The first half, encompassing the first 24 hours, introduces us to the six characters, their backgrounds explained as well as the relationships between them. It’s here that so many questions are left in the air, and at times these opening scenes feel overlong. But this is clearly laying strong foundations for the second half.
Theresa (Julie Maguire), daughter of Fra (Johnny Vivash), is putting on a small celebration to welcome her dad home from prison, released following the Good Friday Agreement that took giant steps towards ending the conflict in Ireland. Through Theresa and all-round busybody Mrs Tymelly (Helena Bereen) we learn of black sheep Loretta (Gina Costigan), Fra’s sister who left long ago after selling the family pub she inherited, leaving the rest of the family homeless. Now though, Loretta is finally coming back, having bought the community hall and invited Ray (Declan Rodgers) to quote to do the place up. Finally we meet Dessie (Kevin Murphy), referred to as an old friend of Fra, although there is clearly more going on between the pair than they would want to let on.
It’s the second half when the play really starts to fulfil the promise hinted at in the first, and those early efforts are duly rewarded. Every relationship is put to the test, and the deepest and darkest of secrets are slowly revealed.
This play is strongly written, a testament to the late Joseph Crilly. The text may be twenty years old, The Good Friday Agreement may not be as fresh in the memory now as it was then, but that doesn’t matter. Crilly never takes sides in the complexities of the Irish question, instead mocking all sides equally for their attitudes. And whilst the play is deeply set in its Irishness, you could most likely take these six individuals, place them in any country and the story would still work. That is because Crilly weaves his characters around each other to show their faults and humanity. There is also a clear hint at toxic masculinity, years before the phrase was even part of our daily vocabulary; each male character appears desperate to show how big they are, even at the expense of the woman.
The one problem with On McQuillan’s Hill is that at times the flow of the play feels disjointed, almost as if the cast are unsure of their characters. What should be an ebb and flow as difficult conversations take place doesn’t quite roll together, possibly caused by a lack of rehearsal or from scenes being cut down from the original script. It is a shame as it stops the production from reaching the full potential the writing promises.
However, this is another in a line of strong plays using the backdrop of the Irish conflict. Even though it was written twenty years ago On McQuillan’s Hill still feels fresh with something important to say, not just about Ireland but that toxic masculinity as well.
Written by: Joseph Crilly
Directed by: Jonathan Harden
Produced by: Doreen Productions & Finborough Theatre
Booking Link: https://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/productions/2020/on-mcquillans-hill.php
Booking until: 29 February 2020