A Night in November – Chiswick Playhouse review

There’s a fantastic production on at Chiswick Playhouse at the moment, which would stand out even in the West End.

A Night in November is about a Belfast Protestant brought up during the Troubles who goes to a football match and is sickened by the behaviour of the crowd: the visceral hatred of the sectarian chanting, provoking fear in the Irish Republic supporters, who dared not cheer their team even though they beat Northern Ireland to take their place in the World Cup.

The match was a real event, a watershed moment in 1993 when it was realised that, in the words of Gary McAllister of the Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs, ‘such behaviour was not only entirely wrong but it was also self-defeating’.

For the play’s character Kenneth it was a turning point, the moment when he decides enough is enough, he need not continue in the mute acceptance of his culture which expects, demands that he see Catholics as other: as untrustworthy, feckless, undeserving scum, something less than human.

He realises that he likes his boss, who he has resented as a Catholic for being promoted above him. It dawns on him that even though he’s worked with him for 15 years he hardly knows him, and when he offers him a lift home from work one night he’s surprised that he has a house bigger than his, with a garage, and is not living in squalor.

What’s more, he realises that he doesn’t much like his prissy wife or their closed-minded friends.

Image above: A Night in November actor Matthew Forsythe; photograph Matthew Harvey

A Night in November is so good because it’s written from the heart by a playwright from the culture she’s writing about. Marie Jones is a Belfast-based actor and playwright born into a working-class Protestant family and she was at the now infamous match.

The director is her son Matthew McElhinney, who told me he’d grown up with the play, which has been highly controversial in Northern Ireland and shaped his own outlook on life. It has received tremendous applause, standing ovations, as it did on the press night at the Chiswick Playhouse, but has also been performed in Protestant East Belfast, where he said you could have heard a pin drop throughout the whole performance.

Even in Chiswick he told me, a woman left at the interval after expressing her anger that the play made no attempt to balance the behaviour of the Protestants with a reminder of the outrages of the IRA. His stock reply is that the play is about one man’s personal experience and there are other plays which examine the IRA.

What is truly remarkable about this production is the performance of actor Matthew Forsythe. It’s a one-hander and he slips between the various characters utterly convincingly: the timid, conventional bureaucrat Kenneth, the disgusting father-in-law chain smoking and coughing up in the back of the car, the prissy wife, the characters in the dole office where he works.

Image above: A Night in November actor Matthew Forsythe; photograph Matthew Harvey

The passion and energy of his performance is infectious as he takes you on this rollercoaster of emotions from embarrassment and self-doubt through anger and humiliation to self-confidence, gratitude and joy as he decides to go with the Irish supporters to watch the Republic of Ireland play in the World Cup in New York.

Matthew also brings personal experience to the play. Coming from Bangor (County Down, not North Wales) he has grown up among these characters and he was actually at the football match as a 12 year-old boy and remembers the atmosphere.

Matthew doesn’t have a huge track record as an actor, training relatively late after a career as a joiner. In fact he has worked on the set of a previous production at the Tabard, as it was then.

Director Matthew McElhinney says they knew immediately in the auditions that he was the one to play the role and Marie Jones has said Matthew Forsythe has given the best performance of any of the actors who’ve played the part in the 25 years since it was first performed.

The theatre company Soda Bread Theatre is a young company which aims to showcase Irish talent. I now want to see Stones in His Pockets, the play for which Marie Jones is best known, about a Hollywood film company filming a movie in a small Irish village and the resulting impact on that community.

So if you’d like to come back with a production of that, of this calibre, within walking distance of my house, that would be lovely, thank you.

A Night in November is on at Chiswick Playhouse until Friday 3 September.

Book tickets through the theatre’s website.


Image above: A Night in November actor Matthew Forsythe (left); director Matthew McElhinney

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See also: Artists At Home, 17-19 September

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