It may be a fault of my own preconceptions, but when I think of the IRA, sectarian killings or the Troubles, men performing Smokey Robinson routines is not the first image to leap into my mind.
Yet sweet Motown melodies go hand in hand with hunger strikes and dirty protests in Martin Lynch’s Chronicles Of Long Kesh, the 2009 Edinburgh Festival hit which closes the Tricycle theatre’s Irish season.
This is not so much a play about politics and the rights or wrongs of different viewpoints. Instead, as its name suggests, it chronicles, in just over two hours, the 30 year history of internment camp/prison Long Kesh through the lives of both inmates and wardens.
Playwright Lynch has blended interviews with former prisoners, wardens and family members to create a tale in which the villain of the piece is the camp itself and the Thatcher administration, rather than either set of inmates.
Billy Clarke’s pipe-cleaner thin screw Freddie narrates the tale, leading the audience through the institution’s eventful history. The prisoners, even if they are released, are rarely gone for long before they find themselves back among friends.
These men are not balaclava-clad murderers, but ordinary men fighting for what they believe. The atrocities they aided and abetted, horrific as they were, take a back seat as their personal tales and ideologies are explored. The process of hiding rifles behind a boiler becomes a throwaway conversation between friends, and as an audience it is easy to forget the carnage and hurt created by Lynch’s prisoners.
Instead, we see from their point of view and feel for them as they put themselves through degradation upon degradation to try and achieve political prisoner status. We see friendships grow, marriages stretched to breaking point, priorities change and spirits broken.
Time and time again they find solace in song. While the ensemble cast may not have the most tuneful voices on the London stage, their rough harmonies perfectly capture the passion of men throwing their all into singing to drown out the rest of the world and its nagging, depressing realities. Never has Free’s All Right Now felt so defiant and powerful as when sung by prisoners crawling back from their lowest ebb.
As a child who was nervous about coming to London during the 80s for fear of bombs in cars, bins, around one corner or the next, it is odd to watch tales of the men who caused that fear and feel compassion and sympathy. Yet Lynch’s play is one of personal tales, humans with faces, feelings, beliefs and a song in their heart. It is hard not to feel shocked at their stories and root for them to survive. The world has moved on and so have they.