REVIEW: A Night In November

It starts with rippling water. Projected right behind actor Matthew Forsythe as he begins his one man tour de force for the 25th Anniversary production of Marie Jones' A Night In November, directed by Matthew McElhinney, is the visual of a wind of change.

The symbol of how a solitary event – be it the throw of a stone or a football match – can have transformative consequences. This is what McElhinney, Forsythe and Soda Bread Theatre company have brought back to us on the Lyric Theatre stage in Belfast – It Can Be A Wonderful And Terrifying Life. Not just for one man, not just in one game, or for two teams taking part in one game, but for what shapes and maintains society and their needs over a long period of time.

The Night In November in question is November 17, 1993. Dole clerk Kenneth Norman McAllister has grown up doing everything the Protestant way – working, living and standing up for what he was taught to believe in. This is all tampered with by his experience of Northern Ireland 1, Republic Of Ireland 1 – the football match which qualified Jack Charlton's team for the World Cup in America, in an atmosphere teeming with the all-around negative effects of The Troubles. Where the calm, growth and unity often taken for granted throughout most of the twenty-first century to date was a pipedream. Where, since football is known to provide its followers with a sense of passion like few other games, the volatility around a person could be enormous.

What McAllister and ourselves learn is the value of embracing and learning from other cultures before we run the risk of becoming too insular, parochial and timid. Forsythe, in portraying not only McAllister but everyone else he encounters on his journey (his wife included!) fully grasps and embodies this. In his discovery that his momentous and life-changing Night In November is not just a football match, but a "battlefield" that is "less about who wins than who doesn't win", it emerges that while pride in identity is one thing, lack of open-mindedness is another. There was grace in the air that night – it was just very, very hard to spot, and Forsythe’s performance aches with both the pain and longing of someone especially eager to find it.

Find it McAllister does, in a second half where he joins "Jackie's Army" and goes off to the USA. Suddenly he is no longer inhibited by restrictive caution – he is part of a lively, multi-cultural community. It looks like McAllister, in embracing everything Ireland's Englishman and his team did, is opening doors. But within him there is also the inescapable sense of closing them. Forsythe is playing more than a person, or many people – he is the emblem of someone who enjoys a new culture only to find, when all the pieces are suddenly in place, that he doesn't quite belong there. It's no coincidence that the set consists is a series of blocks scattered all over the stage before he eventually builds them into a New York skyline: once cast adrift, McAllister now feels part of a large family. But I emphasise "feels", for the isolation isn't entirely gone. If he forgets what he is in pursuit of new found friends and goals, Ray Houghton's included, will he remember who he is?

Just like that rippling water, it's complicated. The ramifications of a night in November expand way beyond the night itself, a night where those involved wondered whether or not they would get out alive - and still search to find a new voice and expression more than a quarter of a century later, as we battle, as much as we always have, to survive in an uncertain world.

Simon Fallaha

A Night In November runs in Belfast's Lyric Theatre until June 21 before going on tour. Photography by Simon Fallaha.

Recent Theatre Reviews