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 The Theatreguide.London Review


The Freedom of the City
Finborough Theatre December 2005

Brian Friel's 1973 play is alternately warm and angry, humourous and ironic in its encapsulation of the Northern Ireland troubles, a vision that resonates just as movingly today, even in this flawed fringe production.

The play opens with the deaths of three civilians shot by soldiers and then flashes back to show the events leading up to that moment, punctuated by flash-forwards to various reactions.

So, at the same time that we see what actually happened, we see how irrelevant the truth quickly becomes as the event is co-opted by others to meet their agendas.

A judge heading an investigation unconsciously starts from the assumption that the three must have been terrorists and thus easily accepts the army's claim that they were armed and shooting. A priest turns them into grist for his politically-charged sermons, a sociologist buries them in Marxist theory, and a balladeer begins the process of mythologising them.

And what we see is that three innocent bystanders at a peaceful civil rights demonstration try to escape the police tear gas and run into the nearest doorway, only to discover themselves in the mayor's office. Once there, they wonder at its finery, sample his liquor and, ironically, are first politicised by the growing realisation of their shared exclusion from power.

Darkened only by our awareness of what is to come, their scenes are warmly comic as a working-class mother (Claire Cogan), a civil rights worker (Nick Lee) and a street tough (Richard Flood) at first bounce off each other and then find common ground. The real power of the play lies in their scenes, and director Vicky Jones has guided them to real and sympathetic characterisations.

Unfortunately the rest of the production doesn't match their level, as the flash-forwards all play as heavy-handed attempts at irony.

While the production will undoubtedly improve as the run progresses, on press night a woeful underrehearsal was evident in the panic in some actors' eyes as just about everyone in the cast took a turn forgetting lines, and in the look of relief and amazement that they had survived during the curtain calls.


Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Freedom of the City - Finborough 2005