St John Ervine’s 1911 play could easily begin with the ‘Ding! Ding!’ of a boxing bell. It is, essentially, a right royalist rumble so full of polar oppositions that it needs nothing more to hold our attention. Catholics square up to Protestants, the working class take on their executive bosses, men eyeball women and fathers and sons locks horns. It survives even Sam Yates’ starch-stiff production because it is a bruiser of a play; one that grabs you by the collar and simply shakes for an hour and twenty minutes.
This brute force makes for a feisty watch, but Ervine’s play can’t be granted heavyweight status. It is too sluggish for that, too naïvely absolute. Ervine sees the world in black and white and, while such clashing rival forces produce explosive bouts, they do not belong to the real world. To be worthwhile as well as watchable, it needs a little compromise.
The irony is that Ervine holds stubborn absolutism itself in absolute contempt. John Rainey’s unwavering refusal to allow his eldest son’s marriage to a local Catholic girl not only collapses a workers’ strike that has put sectarian differences aside, it sparks a fully-fledged riot on the streets of Belfast. Even as stones hammer against his windows and shots ring out across the square, he sits in his Orange collarette, scowling his disapproval; a captain going down with his ship even despite a space on the lifeboat.
One could argue that equal fault lies with Hugh (Christopher Brandon), the son defying his father for the first time by sticking to his engagement, but Ervine affords love a sympathy that he refuses to give to religious faith and moral principle. There’s a romantic naïvety in that too, for neither love nor faith is freely chosen, and Yates ought to level the fight and chide both for their respective obstinacies. As Mrs Rainey repeats throughout men are children prone to pigheadedness. As John, Daragh O’Malley is certainly that, but he lacks the grip of a dictator in his own household. Hugh’s act of disobedience must be a regime-toppler, previously unthinkable. Against O’Malley’s softer touch, it only raises eyebrows.
That aside, the ensemble is emotive and delivers the text beautifully. Yet Yates’ production remains mechanical. In fact, with two doors on its back wall, it can resemble a chalet-style cuckoo clock. That’s largely down to designer Richard Kent halving the Finborough stage to an incommodious two-metre strip, but the cast’s over-gesticulation doesn’t help. You’d think the Raineys so poor that they can’t even afford anything to do with their hands. It’s not enough to fatally wound this muscular play – this could have been a brilliant radio play – but it does prove a constant distraction.