'Quietly' review or 'Shall we go for a pint or a punch?'

Quietly, Owen McCafferty
Soho Theatre, 28th May 2014

A barman watches a football match on TV, Northern Ireland versus Poland. His pub is pretty bland. It is clean and soulless, with little history clinging to its walls. But it’s frightening what a lick of paint can conceal. This bar was blown up in the 1970s by a sixteen year old Protestant, killing six Catholics inside. ‘Quietly’ brings together two kids from opposing sides of this conflict and, forty years on, sees them try to make sense of the troubles they have seen.

This is a gentle tremble of a play from Owen McCafferty, who writes with moving restraint. Everything is held back. Director Jimmy Fay keeps the show quietly motoring at a low and painful pitch. The actors rarely raise their voices and there is a stubborn lack of drama, which stops things feeling over-stated or manipulative. The facts behind the bombing, which killed 6 innocent people and ruined countless other lives, need no embellishment.

It’s the quietness about this piece that makes it so powerful; it’s a play that forces you to lean in and listen. One would think that two enemies meeting in a bar, after so many years, might come to blows.  The expectation of violence lingers in the air but – and this is where the tension and sadness comes from – that violence is very rarely released. It doesn’t need to be. The anger that both these men once felt has been spent, beaten out of them and replaced with shame and sorrow.

Patrick O’Kane plays Jimmy, whose father was caught up in the bombing, as a would-be thug who has lost his fire and rage. He looks always on the verge of throwing a punch but never quite manages it. Instead, he prowls around with an anger that has nowhere to go. He is trapped by his lack of hatred and hemmed in by his compassion. ‘I know what world you lived in’, Jimmy tells Ian, and it is this sympathy for the bomber’s struggle, which Jimmy finds most difficult to bear.

Declan Conlon’s Ian – who threw a bomb in this pub when he was only 16 years old – walks around with his hands always in his jacket pocket, a man turned inwards. When Jimmy describes the impact of the bomb – ‘Everything inside had been blown outside’ – there are echoes of Ian in that devastating description.

O’Kane and Conlon spar painfully together but never lash out. The anger they both feel is for something bigger, something beyond each other. Their anger is really directed at the hatred and conflict that still lingers on the streets outside. When, near the end of the play, some young boys start bashing on the windows of the bar, it feels like it is that world outside where these two should have met and looked for answers.  

But these two men are no longer part of the violence and anger that still brews on the streets of Belfast. They have moved beyond it and they look lost and lonely for it. McCafferty portrays these two Belfast men, borne of conflict but now removed from it, as equally displaced as the Polish barman they now drink with. It’s as if they no longer fit in their bodies, this pub, their country.

After Ian confesses to the bombing – and explains the events that led up to it – the stage falls silent. The low chatter stops and stage is filled with a fathomless silence. The two men shake hands, for just a slither of a second. It is the most painful moment in the play. Forgiveness, we realise, is the toughest battle of all.