Park Theatre, London – until 5 February 2022
Female-led theatre company Plain Heroines “make funny plays about difficult subjects”. That’s an apt description of Kate Reid’s The 4th Country, which tackles the thorny topic of Northern Ireland’s past and present through the eyes of a family that’s been affected by both. But while it’s certainly funny at times, ultimately there’s not much to laugh about in this portrayal of a society still scarred by its troubled history.
Set in 2019, the play begins traditionally enough, as Shona (Aoife Kennan), a weary civil servant in the Northern Irish Department of Health, meets her new intern Melanie (Kate Reid) and succinctly sums up the current political situation: because of the lack of a functioning government since 2017, Shona and her colleagues are now effectively in charge of the country, whether they want to be or not.
That responsibility begins to weigh even more heavily when tragic news arrives, regarding a young woman whose family connection to the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972 guarantees a media storm.
And here is where events take an unexpected turn; the action freezes and the fourth wall disintegrates, leaving the audience thoroughly disoriented as the four actors begin to argue amongst themselves over how best to tell the story. Suddenly we find ourselves heading back five months with Niamh (Rachael Rooney) and Conor (Cormac Elliott), siblings whose close bond is about to be tested to its limits by events far beyond their control.
But despite the efforts of outside forces – lawyers, journalists and yes, playwrights – to tell their story for them, these two characters persist in making their own voices heard, bringing the play to a stark and impactful conclusion that says far more in a few simple words than any dramatic denouement could portray.
Sharp and engaging performances from all four actors make for a fast-moving and entertaining production, shot through with a dry sense of humour that comes through in both their dialogue and their physical interactions. Though underpinned by a darker significance, the fraught relationship between Niamh and her brother’s English fiancée offers plenty of laughs, and her later encounter with Melanie at a bus stop somehow manages to be both funny and completely devastating.
A stereotype referenced in the play is that for many people outside Northern Ireland, the country’s name conjures up images of either bombs or leprechauns. What this play skilfully captures is the reality in between; a society where the explicit violence may be at an end, but the social and political shockwaves continue to be felt, even if their impact doesn’t always make it into the English news headlines. Reid’s writing contains enough exposition for the audience to follow the story, but in holding back some details, she both gently makes us aware of our own ignorance and presents us with an opportunity to go away and do something about it.
The 4th Country is at Park Theatre until 5th February.
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.@PlainHeroines new play #The4thCountry ‘gently makes us aware of our own ignorance’ about Northern Ireland, says @TheatreThingsUK. At @ParkTheatre til 5 Feb. #newwriting #OffWestEnd #theatrereviews