A Night in November – Lyric Theatre – Review
by Cathy Brown
12 – 21 June 2019
It’s been twenty-five years since Marie Jones’ A Night in November burst on to the Northern Ireland theatre scene and to mark the anniversary, Lyric Theatre Belfast have teamed up with fledgling company Soda Bread Theatre to present a new staging of this iconic play.
A Night in November is a play of two halves, each focusing on two very different football matches.
Kenneth Norman McCallister is a Protestant dole clerk from East Belfast whose unquestioning faith lies less in Church and more in his sensible, settled lifestyle. Slightly bored at work and slightly bored with his wife Debra, the highlight of his recent life is being accepted as a member of the golf club ahead of his Catholic boss Gerry.
Kenneth finds his beliefs radically overturned when he attends a World Cup qualifying match between Northern Ireland and Ireland in Windsor Park in 1994. He is only there to look after his wheezing, limping father-in-law Eric and is horrified by the hateful sectarian chants of his fellow supporters.
Kenneth is shocked into examining his own acceptance of the anti-Catholic status quo and starts to question what he could have been and what he will probably become. So begins a personal and literal journey of self-discovery, which will end in New York with Kenneth newly recruited as one of ‘Jackie’s Army’, drunkenly cheering on the Republic of Ireland football team and coming to terms with his background in the process.
Marie Jones, with her keen ear for dialogue and sharp insight into the Northern Ireland psyche is at her best here, the expected brash humour balanced by some much needed emotional depth. However, she has never shied away from stereotype, which means there can, at times, be a lingering scent of cliché hanging over the play. All the Protestants here are shallow and uptight, and all the Catholics have big messy families and love the craic, a simplification that jars when watching the play today.
The first half contains a lot of overly earnest sermonising but there are some scenes which stand out – Kenneth’s visit to his Catholic boss Gerry’s home is a masterclass in comic writing and the long set piece featuring his flight to the States and drunken celebrations after the match feature Jones at her exuberant best.
This is a play where success hinges almost entirely on the performance of the lead actor, who plays 12 roles in total, some within the same sentence. A veritable who’s who of Northern Irish theatre have played the role – Dan Gordon, Conor Grimes, Marty Maguire and Patrick Kielty. Matthew Forsythe holds his own putting in a solid, energetic performance.
The beginning of the show would benefit from tighter vocal and physical delineation between characters but Forsythe soon settles into things. A lack of sympathetic female characters means that there is a tendency to camp the women up, but Forsythe excels when exploring Kenneth’s slowly unravelling confusion. The pacing is fast and furious and Kenneth’s Damascene journey would benefit from some quieter moments, but Forsythe and director Matthew McElhinney carefully balance the humour and pathos of Jones’ script.
Chris Hunter’s set is spare but effective – a rectangle of football pitch-like grass watched over by a distorted mirror, which reflects Kenneth’s confused and distorted sense of self. The only props are an array of cardboard boxes, offering all sorts of metaphors for Kenneth’s boxed in thinking. They become a car, his desk and his living room, but are most effectively used in a bravura sequence to create the New York skyline, so well done that Kenneth names it twice. The play is well served by Garth McConaghie’s beautiful music, which adds depth and nuance to the piece and is subtly used.
Although A Night in November has inevitably dated, it is perhaps a little dispiriting to witness how relevant a lot of this material still feels after twenty-five years. It is undoubtedly a sentimental play, often simplifying complex issues for dramatic tension and broad humour, but excels when exploring the difficulty in changing belief systems that are passed down from generation to generation.
In this time of Brexit, borders and shifting identities, A Night in November is an entertaining piece of theatre that celebrates acceptance, growth and understanding.