Actor in search of obscurity


Joseph Crilly used to be - indeed, probably still is - a fine actor. The "used to be" refers to the fact that, these days, Crilly's name is less likely to be found on a cast list than in a by-line. Last year, his first stage play, Second Hand Thunder, directed by Stephen Wright for Tinderbox Theatre Company, won the Stewart Parker Award for New Writing. Recently, he has been back in Belfast with Wright and Tinderbox for rehearsals of its companion piece, On McQuillan's Hill, which begins previews at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, from tonight.

Crilly has lived in London for almost half of his 37 years, joining the National Youth Theatre there when he was 18 and never looking back. He now considers himself to have two, perfectly compatible, homes. "London is, in effect, an Irish city. It's not difficult to keep the connections going," he says. "I scan the pages of the Irish News and the Belfast Telegraph every day. And, when I want to get really close to home, I take a look through the Lurgan Mail. In the years that I have been in London, it has become progressively easier to travel to and fro. Now, I'm over here several times a year."

With his new role has come a subtle shift in image. The close-cropped, grey-flecked hair and wire-framed glasses lend him a certain air of gravitas, though it is not difficult to spot the maverick actor, still lurking beneath. So what has prompted him to make the switch from centre stage to backroom? The eyes narrow mischievously and the familiar grin breaks out. "It's obscurity I'm after these days." The way his career is going, obscurity is the last thing he's likely to find.

This latest play is described in Tinderbox's publicity material as "a time bomb waiting to go off". Stephen Wright declares that what attracted him to it was " . . . the authenticity of its voice, the rugged vernacular of its dialogue, plus the fact that it is a great story about the kind of dysfunctional people you find all over Northern Ireland". The production should be a very strong parting shot from Wright, who is leaving Tinderbox to take up a position as a producer with the BBC. Following the dictum of sticking to what you know best, Crilly's story and its characters emerge from the isolated rural area in which he grew up, the remote boglands around Lough Neagh in north Armagh. But, as he is quick to underline, it is no emigrant's lament. "There's nothing sentimental about it. It's a play about revelations, personal and political. It's about relationships and emotions which could surface in any rural environment. McQuillan's Hill is a fictional place in the back of beyond, a backwater outside a backwater. It's a place where people have bugger-all to talk about, so discretion and keeping up appearances are all part of life. Anything that goes against what passes for normality is open to comment and criticism and scrutiny.

"In many ways, things are changing fast here, and yet, in many more ways, change is slow to come. It is a desperately conservative society, and it will take a long time for entrenched mind-sets to alter radically. Even though this play is not overtly political, you cannot ignore the politics of this place. Like it or not, they are etched into us all and determine the ways in which people think and act towards each other."

In Second Hand Thunder, Crilly ventured boldly into the closed ranks of the Orange Order. Through its dark, sometimes chilling storyline, he showed how, as with the innocently beautiful landscape of the North, one only has to scratch the surface of a perfectly amiable person to find all kinds of unpleasant truths lurking underneath. "If you thought that Second Hand Thunder scratched the surface, this play goes down a few more layers," he hints. "My first play was about the Protestant community; this one is about Catholics. But, as we well know, neither community is free of sectarianism. On the contrary, it's a way of life. I should stress though, that it is very funny. I'm making it sound like an exercise in doom and gloom. It's anything but." On McQuillan's Hill will be Stephen Wright's last production as artistic director of Tinderbox. He has been appointed a drama producer with the BBC but would like to think he may be asked back as a guest director. He leaves behind a well-established, thriving organisation, having achieved the ambition he shared back in the late 1980s with people like Tim Loane, Mark Carruthers, Paula McFetridge, Miche Doherty, Lalor Roddy and Angela McCloskey to set up an independent theatre company, pledged to developing new Irish writing.

As Tinderbox limbers up to find Wright's successor, administrator Eamon Quinn points to the challenge in hand: "We have a very ambitious, busy year ahead. We are looking to improve venue provision in the city, in establishing a permanent home for our and other companies' work." So for the new artistic director, it's not a matter of looking back on past achievements, as taking on and developing future plans." It's an exciting prospect.

On McQuillan's Hill opens at the Lyric on February Thursday and runs until February 28th. It then goes on a tour of Ireland, North and South, until April 8th