Arcola Theatre – until 25 March 2023
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Tim Edges’ taut thriller establishes its tone immediately as four prisoners sit with sacks over their heads while the audience find their seats. A black rock hangs above the stage – the Black Mountain overlooking Belfast, and the shadow of the troubles that no one can escape. It is 1979, and there is a shift in power in the republican ranks as they move from old-school thuggery to more secure terror cells. Ceci Calf’s set ensures a cold, bunker-like atmosphere, even around the family table.
The Ryan family are the epicentre of the play – Niamh (Evanna Lynch) desperately trying to shield her brother from the violence of their father, Cashel (John Nayagam), where her tormented mother Sandra (Flora Montgomery) cannot. The fractures and betrayals of the family as Alan (Jordan Walker) becomes active in the movement to please his father cause devastation in the family and beyond, with Niamh eventually deciding to join on of the new cells. Montgomery and Lynch portray the emotional trauma in very different but equally gut-wrenching ways. Montgomery’s public railing against the community and the movement nears hysteria, while Lynch’s Niamh becomes blanker and blanker, seemingly numbing herself to the violence around her. Contrasted with the cold and pragmatic female leader of the republicans, they are the beating heart of the play, and the two actors give magnetic performances.
There is lots of dark gallows humour, with cleverly written characters that ap0pear stereotypes but Edges’ writing then suddenly pulls the rug from beneath your feet as they reveal what they have done in the name of loyalty or revenge. Fin’s (Jordan Walker) transformation from a kid too scared to pull the trigger of a gun into a shrewd bombmaker who sees dead bodies as scientific data in the quest for a more efficient bomb is chillingly funny.
The search for the traitor in their ranks gets gruesome, with a particularly uncomfortable torture scene but, again, all is not what it seems, and it is Joseph Ed Thomas’s lighting design and Ben Kavanagh’s sound design that ramp up the tension to excruciating levels. Kavanagh directs with impressive clarity and scene changes are choreographed to ensure the grievances between the characters are not forgotten, even when they are dead.
Under the Black Rock is thrilling and tense, making you laugh and wince in equal measure.