Peeling wallpaper and brown bottles, along with an assortment of knick-knacks and many coats, give a distinctly grubby feel to the living room set. It somehow seems to extend its reach around the intimate theatre, despite the fact that no part of it actually leaves the stage. Grubbiness aside, the warm lighting and especially the soft, acoustic Irish music that greets you as you enter the Jermyn Street Theatre creates a gentle and welcoming atmosphere. It feels like stepping into a friend’s flat – even if it’s a friend who appears to have fallen on hard times – rather than a theatre as you settle down on one of the red velvet seats amongst the rest of the audience.
It quickly becomes apparent that this intimate atmosphere is vital for The Easter Rising and Thereafter. It’s a performance that follows in the grand footsteps of storytelling, of history being passed down within families and between friends through exciting, angry, joyful, melancholy tales. You don’t have to worry about exaggerations or faulty memories that usually warp stories to be more fiction than fact here, though. Letters, newspaper articles, photos and more are pinned to the wall as evidence for what the players say as the performance goes on. It’s like the most entertaining lesson on Irish history you’ll ever see, especially as the actors smoothly slip in and out of character for many of the different reenactments of key moments during the Easter Rising, the War of Independence, and beyond.
In fact, the actors must be praised for how easily they seemed to don each new character, quickly and convincingly stepping into each new role with just a change of coat or accessory while switching between accents flawlessly. The chemistry between the group is warm and jovial too. You get the impression of old friends gathering once again, and each works to support the others – something that is essential in an ensemble piece such as this. The deft directing by Donnacadh O’Brian has to be thanked for this as well. With eight actors on a small stage for the whole play, it would have been easy for there to be moments when the space felt cramped or uncomfortable. Instead, the actors manage to happily breeze past each other, casually changing coats and characters, without it looking like they are even trying.
With beautiful Irish music and well-recited Irish poetry peppered through this play all about Irish history, it’s obvious that it will be a delight to any fan of Irish culture. Those who fail to bone up on the history of this emerald isle, though, might feel a little left behind. A number of name drops and clever jokes are bound to go over the heads of those who are unprepared. Though the music is still enchanting and the acting is completely on point – and the exposition will do – trust me when I say it’s a far more enjoyable experience if you see this play already knowing a little bit about the subject matter.
Easter Rising and Thereafter is playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 30 April. For more information and tickets, see the Jermyn Street Theatre website. Photo: Nick Rutter