Irish writer Owen McCafferty’s new play Quietly arrives in the Soho Theatre with a bang – and a string of awards to its name. And deservedly so: this is a piece crackling with menace concerning two men from either side of Belfast’s religious divide coming together for the first time in a pub. We learn early on that there is bad blood between Jimmy (Patrick O’Kane) and Ian (Declan Conlon) but the play takes its time to reveal the details of the violence that connects them and then raises the tension to an almost unbearable level before we find out if there is any chance of these two men resolving their personal histories.
O’Kane gives a truly extraordinary performance as Jimmy, prowling the bar like a velociraptor, sinking pints and slamming the empty glasses down before perching on a barstool, his entire body clenched into a fist. Conlon’s Ian moves out of the way for him but his bear-like presence ensures that any physical force will be met with equal and opposite resistance. The only other character is the Polish barman Robert (Robert Zawadzki) who acts as an impartial witness to the stand-off, keeping one nervous eye on the high-stakes football match playing in the background that promises a riot in the streets if the result goes against Northern Ireland.
Quietly is not a perfect play – the politics are undoubtedly slanted in one direction which does temper the central notion of citizens who share the same streets locked in a self-perpetuating cycle of hate. Then again, perhaps a more evenly-balanced debate would detract from the vital rawness that gives this particular tale its power. And since both Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have recently been in the headlines linked to dark deeds done in the name of nationalism, perhaps the play’s focus on the Catholic victims redresses the historical bias that exists in this country. If there’s any justice, Quietly will win more awards and Patrick O’Kane will clean up.
Quietly is on at the Soho Theatre until 22 June 2014. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.