Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2009: Theatre

The entrance to Long Kesh prison

The entrance to Long Kesh prison

We only made it to one play at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival and what a play it was. Chronicles of Long Kesh at the Assembly Hall told the story of the prison situated outside Belfast that was variously known as Long Kesh, the Maze and the H Blocks. The prison opened as HM Prison Maze in 1971 and housed thousands of paramilitary prisoners before its eventual closure in 2000. This two-hour play could have been heavy going for its midday audience, but it managed to blend a hearty dose of humour and song with the many tragic events that took place within the prison. The first half of the play takes us through the 70s from the burning of the camp in 1974 up to the dirty protests and the first hunger strikes at the end of that decade. The set is bare except for six large wooden boxes that the actors constantly move around to indicate a change of scenery. It is narrated by Freddie, played brilliantly by Billy Clarke, a young Protestant man who decides to become a prison officer more out of financial necessity than personal choice. At the beginning, Freddie is naive and out of his depth, but he settles into his role as an officer despite the pressures that it brings. Freddie introduces us to the rest of the characters and keeps the audience up-to-date with events inside and outside the prison as the play progresses. The rest of the cast is made up of one female and five male actors who each play a number of different roles. At the start it seems that there are too many characters and sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart. However, we are soon able to differentiate them due to the actors use of facial expressions, accents and body posture and movement

The play is constantly broken up by the introduction of musical numbers that add some levity to the proceedings. Oscar (Marty Maguire) is a huge Smokey Robinson fan and he leads the others in some fine renditions of Motown and pop songs from the 60s and 70s. The singing, performance and choreography of these songs is of a high standard and they provide some entertainment for the audience as well as a respite for the actors on stage. At first, these musical interludes seem out of place, but they soon become integrated into the story, while the use of these songs also helps to balance some of the play’s darker moments. Some of the most moving scenes come around the time that the hunger strikes are announced as we see the characters debating whether or not they should join the strike themselves. In these and similar scenes, the actors’ performances are just as convincing as they are are during the lighter moments. Chronicles of Long Kesh featured one of the best collective performances that I have ever seen on stage and it was made all the more remarkable as it took place at midday. I was delighted to hear that their performance won the best ensemble acting award at this year’s fest. The play was also a runner-up in the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award. Martin Lynch also deserves praise for writing a well-structured play with authentic and witty dialogue throughout. Martin based the play on the experiences of people he knew growing up in the seventies as well as dozens of interviews with former prisoners, social workers and families associated with the prison. This is certainly a play that is worthy of two hours of your time and a few bob of your hard-earned money

This period in Northern Ireland’s history has inspired many works of literature, film and music over the last few decades. I’ve put together a mix of songs from Irish and British artists that were mostly written and released during the late 70s and 80s. These songs deal with many of the issues raised in the play as well as the British army presence, the role of religion, Bloody Sunday, the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four. Some of these songs, such as the opening one by U2, have become well-known throughout the world, some are only known in Ireland, and one or two more have been rescued from obscurity

Songs About Northern Ireland

The opening track of U2’s third album, War (1983), is notable for its military drumming, edgy guitar and political subject matter. The title refers to two separate tragic events that happened in Dublin (1920) and Derry (1972), both resulting in dozens of deaths

01 Sunday Bloody Sunday – U2

Alternative Ulster appears on Stiff Little Fingers’ debut album, Inflammable Material (1979). The Belfast punk band were far more politically engaged than their Derry counterparts, The Undertones, as evidenced by the titles of other tracks on the album such as Suspect Device, State of Emergency and Barbed Wire Love

02 Alternative Ulster – Stiff Little Fingers

Therapy?’s cover of The Police’s Invisible Sun appears on a charity album entitled Peace Together (1993). The Police released it as a UK-only single in 1981 and the BBC banned its accompanying music video as it featured footage from the Troubles

03 Invisible Sun (The Police cover) – Therapy?

The Peace Together album also contains Blur’s version of Elvis Costello’s highest-placed single, Oliver’s Army. Costello wrote the song on the way back from a gig in Belfast where he saw loads of young British soldiers on the streets. The song covers a number of places besides Northern Ireland where British soldiers could have been sent at the time. The Oliver of the title most likely refers to Oliver Cromwell

04 Oliver’s Army (Elvis Costello cover) – Blur

Peace Together also includes a version of Andy White’s Religious Persuasion in which the author is joined by Billy Bragg and Sinéad O’Connor. The Belfast man’s witty lyrics address the religious side of the conflict

05 Religious Persuasion (Andy White) – Andy White, Billy Bragg & Sinéad O’Connor

The Australian-based, but Scottish-born, singer-songwriter Eric Bogle has written a number of anti-war songs such as And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda and No Man’s Land (aka The Green Fields of France). This song is sung by the Irish singer, Mary Black, and concerns a victim of the Troubles, but remains ambiguous as to the dead man’s religious persuasion

06 My Youngest Son Came Home Today (Eric Bogle) – Mary Black

The Divine Comedy’s driving force, Neil Hannon, was born the son of a Church of Ireland clergyman in Derry in 1970. Sunrise appears on his Fin de Siècle (1998) album and deals with growing up in a town that was called either Derry or Londonderry depending on which side you were on

07 Sunrise – The Divine Comedy

Phil Coulter’s song is also about Derry at the height of the Troubles and is best known for Dubliner Luke Kelly’s version

08 The Town I Loved So Well (Phil Coulter) – Luke Kelly

Irish folk singer, Christy Moore, has made this song famous. It was written by Bobby Sands, who died while on hunger strike in the Long Kesh prison in 1981. The tune borrows from Gordon Lightfoot’s Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and concerns a prison ship bound for Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania) in the early 1800s

09 Back Home In Derry (by Bobby Sands) – Christy Moore

Bobby Untitled is a song about Bobby Sands that appears on I Killed the Zeitgeist (2006), the debut album by the Manic Street Preachers’ bassist, Nicky Wire

10 Bobby Untitled – Nicky Wire

Ether is the opening track on Gang of Four’s debut album, Entertainment! (1979). The Leeds post-punk band’s song uses a call and response technique as it looks at the prisoners’ situation in Long Kesh. You can read what lead singer Jon King has to say about this song and the rest of the songs on the album here

11 Ether – Gang of Four

The Au Pairs were post punk contemporaries of the Gang of Four, hailing from nearby Birmingham. Armagh appears on their first album, Playing With a Different Sex (1981). The title of the song refers to the women’s prison in the town of the same name and to allegations of abuse towards its inmates

12 Armagh – The Au Pairs

Fun Boy Three formed out of the ashes of The Specials in 1981 and lasted until 1983. The More I See was the only one of their eight singles that finished outside the Top 40. It appears on their second and final album, Waiting (1983). Its failure may have been due to lyrical references to “barbed wire fences” and “petrol bombs”

13 The More I See (The Less I Believe) – Fun Boy Three

This was Belfast band The Adventures only Top 40 hit from nearly a dozen attempts and appears on their second album, The Sea of Love (1988)

14 Broken Land – Adventures

Paul Brady was born in Strabane, Co Tyrone, a couple of years after the end of World War II. Taken from Back to the Centre (1985), The Island is partly a love song and partly a song in which its narrator appears to be disillusioned with the ongoing situation in Northern Ireland during the 80s

15 The Island – Paul Brady

Disillusionment is also evident in Streets of Sorrow, Terry Woods’ song that opens this medley from If I Should Fall From Grace With God (1988). This gives way to anger in Shane MacGowan’s song that closes the medley

16 Streets of Sorrow-Birmingham Six – The Pogues

Andy White’s second song on this list was written just before the Guildford Four were released in 1989 and appears on his third album, Himself (1990)

17 The Guilford Four – Andy White

Bap Kennedy was born in Belfast in 1962 and is the older brother of the more famous Brian. This song by the former Energy Orchard frontman appears on his first solo album, Domestic Blues (1998)

18 Shankhill to the Falls – Bap Kennedy & Nanci Griffith

Billy Bragg’s Northern Industrial Town appears on William Bloke (1996) and is about a British town that has got “only two teams” “and you must follow one or the other”. “But it’s not Leeds or Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, nor Glasgow”

19 Northern Industrial Town – Billy Bragg