A Night in November

Conor Grimes in 'A Night in November' by Marie Jones at the Grand Opera House, Belfast.

Conor Grimes in 'A Night in November' by Marie Jones at the Grand Opera House, Belfast.

It may have been written almost 20 years ago and in a very specific political context; it may be laden with two-dimensional representations of the Catholic and Protestant communities of the North; its central Damascene conversion from smug, buttoned-up Ulsterman to rowdy, beer-swilling Irishman may come rather too easily, but it has always been hard to resist the dark, knowing humour of Marie Jones’ bittersweet A Night in November.

Now, Conor Grimes’ thoughtful, engaging solo performance as unfulfilled dole clerk Kenneth McCallister brings a new dimension to a play, which was in urgent need of refreshing for the times in which we are living. It is clear from its focused introspection and self-deprecating comedic style that actor and director Ian McElhinney have put their heads together and come up with an interpretation that gives full rein and reflection to the broad brushstrokes of the surface content.

One may question the rationale behind another revival of a somewhat dated piece so firmly rooted in 1993/1994, a tumultuous period horribly marked by random killings and a series of sectarian massacres – the Shankill bomb, the Hallowe’en horror of Greysteel and the gunning down of a gathering of football fans in Loughinisland, which brings the play to a sudden, juddering halt.

But Opera House chief executive Michael Ockwell is a shrewd operator, who, during his short tenure, has programmed some interesting new work, while also understanding that the majority of Northern theatregoers know what they like – and like what they know.

The plays of writers like Jones and Martin Lynch have hit the spot for him time after time and the size and reaction of the opening night house for this production eloquently underlines the fact that political incorrectness and dodgy cultural stereotyping matter not a jot if one is out for a good time and a good laugh.

These days, Grimes is better known as one half of the popular Grimes and McKee comedy team, but he is also a fine, classically trained actor, equipped with excellent stage technique. He navigates his way through around 20 assorted roles, male and female, with superb control and contrast, morphing seamlessly from one to the other with a mere shift in body language, switch of accent, inflection and facial expression.

In contrast with previous incarnations, his Kenneth is nicely but effectively underplayed. As the original everyman, he has an appealingly ironic way of connecting directly with the audience, confiding his inner struggles and inviting them to bear with him.

At home, in Stuart Marshall’s versatile, clean-lined set, overlooked by the outline of the Craigantlet Hills and brought to life by a catchy ‘90s pop soundtrack, Kenneth obeys the rules set by his wife Deborah. But behind the counter at the dole office, he is self-important officlaldom personified, wallowing in bureaucracy and delighting in belittling unemployed Catholics in search of work and/or benefits. His delight at his acceptance into the local golf club knows no bounds, particularly when it comes to waving his success in the face of his Catholic boss Gerry.

He is unquestioning of his secure place in his community until, on a night in November 1993, he takes his rancid, bigoted father-in-law to the match between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. There, on the terraces of Windsor Park, he encounters unfettered sectarianism belching like molten lava from the mouths of Northern Ireland football supporters, of which he is one. Appalled at the attitudes and activities of his tribe, Kenneth slowly resolves to seek another path, a path which leads him all the way to New York in the raucous, good-humoured company of Jackie’s Army.

In Grimes’ assured hands, Kenneth’s romanticized pursuit of a new identity turns both manic and pathetic. Peeping squeamishly between our fingers, we witness his desperation to belong, his glee at kicking over the traces of his wife’s prissy domestic routine, his boyish pride in swapping red, white and blue for green and gold, his thrill at becoming one of the gang. But the helter-skelter fact-based narrative thrust downplays important questions about dubious cultural messages, disloyalty to friends and family and the integrity of the political allegiances to which he now aspires.

It takes a coincidental conversation with a passing NYPD officer to inform Kenneth of the tragedy that has occurred back home, the shooting dead of a group of supporters gathered in a bar, like himself, to watch Ireland defeat Italy. Dramatically, it is a chilling moment, a moment when the laughter stops abruptly. But eighteen years on and in radically changed social and political circumstances, Kenneth’s final triumphant declaration of being "a Protestant and an Irishman" carries all manner of world-weary resonances into our better informed, less idealistic consciousness.

Jane Coyle is a Belfast-based arts journalist, critic and screenwriter, who also reviews for The Irish Times, The Stage, Culture Northern Ireland and BBC Radio Ulster. 

  • Review
  • Theatre

A Night in November by Marie Jones

11 - 15 September, 2012 (continues on tour)

Produced by Grand Opera House Productions
In Grand Opera House, Belfast

Directed by Ian McElhinney

Set Design: Stuart Marshall                                

Lighting Design: Declan Anthony                       

Sound Design: James Kennedy   

With: Conor Grimes