THEATRE REVIEW: 1932- The People of Gallagher Street at the MAC, Belfast
When dramatising history, there are various routes - Brechtian, popular (the authors of the Full Monty did a great job presenting Northern deprivation in the '80s?), Ken Loach's approach in I, Daniel Blake.
Outside agitprop, one of the best involves engaging audience sympathy by focussing on individual characters and their stories within the historical maelstrom. And although Martin Lynch and Gary Mitchell's version of the Outdoor Relief Strike of 1932, in which the workers of Belfast rose up against the poverty caused by appalling employment conditions, was in places effective, the problem was that they took several approaches. In fact, the evening's drama was three shows for the price of one.
As we entered the MAC's main auditorium, we encountered actors from the community cast improvising husbands, wives, problemmakers and singers doing their own thing. Fun, but we had as yet no plot or real historical context to understand these exchanges. Then, we had a mini-musical with all sorts of jolly period numbers like I'll be Loving You, Always. Mark Dougherty, musical director, is talented and experienced but this was a different evening. Katie Tumelty, effective now in the matriarchal role of Helen Patterson, was squabbling and introduced us to this Presbyterian household. Husband Alec, a classic bully played convincingly by Marty Maguire, illustrated part of the Northern Irish problem at the time. We eventually got the story of the strike, but the nicely crafted scenes never made you believe in the pains people were going through. Inserting Yes, we Have No Bananas after a union meeting didn't help.
I am guessing the comedic scenes, some featuring the chancer Coconut (excellent Gerard McCabe), and the World War One stuff were by Martin Lynch. He's good at that. And I am also guessing the most gruelling and affecting scenes in which characters like proto-feminist and socialist Maisie and her frustrated (every sense) husband Frankie McCann (outstanding Thomas Finnegan) fight it out were by Gary Mitchell, enjoying a bit of a moment. Mitchell always manages in plays like Trust to filter historical and sectarian tension through intense characterisation.
The near rape scene that ended act one was horrible and brilliant, but it came from a different play, a kind of 20th century Ulster Edward Albee. Memorable, brilliantly acted by Finnegan and Bernadette Brown, it symbolised so much about this changing period. It's just a shame Green Shoot with Lynch directing didn't choose one of the options.