Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Finborough Theatre – a small fringe theatre situated above a pub in Earl’s Court, London – has opened up a selection of videos of their previous productions to the public for free. Fortunately for our rrramble writers, this fabulous online resource contains Continuity – Irish playwright Gerry Moynihan’s debut – which follows Padraig, an Irish ‘freedom fighter’, as his commitment to the cause is challenged…
It’s been so long since I’ve seen a play, let alone one as good as Continuity. As I watched the show, I felt a weight lift off of my shoulders. ‘Here we are,’ I thought, ‘this is how things should be.’ I had forgotten how the minimal set and costume can come to life when utilised well by writers, directors, and performers who really know what they’re doing. It felt like returning home.
So, this is a biased review on that front. But despite the existential glory it bestowed upon me, I think Continuity was a pretty dang good play. It’s about Padraig Devlin, a man who is torn between the old republican cause and a new love who his fellow IRA members do not approve of.
A one man show lives and dies on the strengths of its main performer. Paul Kennedy as Padraig Devlin is, frankly, astonishing in the role. Above everything else I love the physicality that he bestows to Padraig and the other characters throughout. I love how the character of Joe is always depicted crushing a cigarette between his fingers. It’s such a small detail which instantly conjures an image in the mind of a man who is hard in all aspects of his life. Kennedy knows his body well and how to soften or harden as and when the situation demands. He flits from character to character seamlessly and with an ease that makes what he’s doing look easy. There’s a dancer-like quality to his performance. Striking distinctive poses, natural and statuesque at the same time. We’re introduced to Padraig in a pub where he is loud and charismatic. It’s so easy to be pulled into his world. You give yourself over to this man. And by the time he’s singing a song whilst keeping an eye open for his crush in the corner, you fall in love with him.
Kennedy is not just holding this play up on his own however. The writing is excellent. Padraig’s soliloquising is thoughtful and eloquent. He’s a wonderful narrator to the events of the play. No scene is boring. When the gang gathers to watch the news for reports of their latest bomb attack, they do it at a pub quiz. A fight about Madonna’s no. 1 hits turns on a dime to Padraig’s life being threatened if he messes up another assignment. It’s nowhere near as comedic, but Continuity does remind me of Chris Morris’ Four Lions in how it empathetically characterises those who are willing to perform violent acts for their cause. There’s no love lost for them; no reason given to the audience to view our characters as anything other than deeply human. Even when things come to a head in the latter half of the play, empathy for our characters is still at the forefront of the play’s concerns.
All in all Continuity is a lovely piece of theatre that has a heart to pour out but also has teeth to bare and snarl.
It’s hard to believe that Continuity was produced before the Northern Ireland Protocol, before the murder of Lyra McKee. An introspective look at the cyclical violence and division that scar Ulster feels far more pertinent now than it did in 2017.
Like everybody else I need to praise Paul Kennedy’s delivery. One-performer plays are difficult to pull off without becoming either boring or pretentious. However, Kennedy gives an incredible performance that grounds Pádraig in the real world, and gives distinctive voices to the characters we don’t see. This is backed-up by subtle-but-brilliant work by the production team that keeps the action on stage visually interesting so that even in 480p with distorted sound, I was totally immersed by the performance. If you like TV dramas but feel unsure about theatre, Continuity is a great way to invest your time.
In Great Britain I think a lot of people see The Troubles as a skirmish in the distant past and forget that the remains of the conflict are still causing hurt in post-GFA Ulster. Continuity hones in on the perspective of Pádraig, a conflicted RIRA paramilitary, to explore the inherited trauma of The Troubles and the conflicts that have permeated Ireland for centuries. Through Pádraig we see people who grew up with the hurt of The Troubles, family loss, inherited pride and shame, fighting for a 32 county republic that never came. Pádraig’s relationship with his parents shows how difficult it is to move on after the GFA when so many people still bear the wounds of the troubles. But Continuity doesn’t present this uncritically, the RA men’s inability to look forward has them stuck in the past worshipping the 1916 proclamation and crying their tiocfaidh ár lás without asking what it means. On stage we see the cost of this refusal to come to terms with the past; in perpetuating the conflict the men do atrocious things, and ultimately tear eachother apart. It is a harrowing portrayal of the cost of constantly opening old wounds until you bandage yourself or bleed out.
Sadly, in spite of the great production, there are some glaring gaps within the script. Because everything is filtered through Pádraig, the people of Ulster are profoundly absent from the story. In a way this choice works. It shows how detached Pádraig and his associates are from their community, as they value the idea of the republic above the people they supposedly fight for. But I worry that an audience that likely lacks sufficient knowledge on the subject might overlook this. The RA men have decided to take peace away from these people, and their perspective should be part of the story.
Furthermore I can’t forgive the complete lack of stage presence from Gorka until the last 15 minutes of the story, despite being presented as Páraig’s motivation. Bad men having a change of heart thanks to the touch of a woman is already a tired trope, and I was disappointed that it was taken from granted by the story, without any additional thought or depth. Gorka is so thoroughly de-characterised that she could be cut from the story and it would make no difference. This is particularly egregious given that Gorka is from Barcelona and Continuity was staged shortly before the Catalan referendum, yet the parallel between Ulster and Catalonia’s republican movements aren’t mentioned. There’s so much fertile ground the play skips over and it left me frustrated. It was a really powerful play that I want to share with others, but the huge gaps mean you can’t afford to watch this without a critical eye.
Continuity explores politics, purity and bravado in one man’s experience of life in the IRA. Paul Kennedy powerfully drives the weight of the narrative alone on a minimal stage; despite this the performance is full of different lives and voices, all permanently entwined by and branded with the ‘cause’. Padraig’s pain and confliction felt tangible performed by Kennedy. The monologue exposes the universal dilemma of personal family values and commitment to duty; the final line is sting ringing in my ears.
The small, intimate stage is minimalist and this is definitely a ‘listening’ piece. However, I think, if anything, this just allows more room for Kennedy’s presence to fill up the stage; his voice is booming and the scope of complexity and emotion in the piece is vast. The monologue starts in a rowdy pub, the rough-and-ready set compliments this, as Padraig and his comrades drink and eye-up the girls. Padraig ends the scene by kissing Gorka, the “hippy chick” he finds at the pub. He says that even on this first meeting, he feels like they will be together for a long time. At this point, it looks like the play could be a love-story: in a way it is. The play reveals how love for a cause can clash with family values, how love can be repressed, how it can be forgotten, how it can be trivialised and how love can end in violence. The laid back drunkenness and traditional folk singing initially hides the characters’ thicker than blood commitment to the ‘unfinished revolution’, making the drama that follows even more surprising. Gorka is branded a tourist by Padraig’s comrades, a passing fling, irrelevant to their united purpose. I wish I could see this performance live and in person. Much of the appeal of the play is its intimacy, and I imagine that if I was sitting right in front of Padraig, his story would feel even more devastating. I am so happy that it has still been recorded as otherwise I would have not been able to watch this piece. I am a big fan of theatre that is stripped back; it lets the characters and their stories take over the stage without unnecessary distractions. I would definitely recommend Continuity to someone who wants to get lost in a story and who might want to learn more about the lives entwined with the IRA behind historic media headlines.
Continuity is available to watch online through #FinboroughForFree until December 2021. Finborough Theatre are accepting donations through their website to help them recover from the impact of prolonged closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic.