Review: The Bombing of The Grand Hotel

Review: The Bombing of The Grand Hotel

IT’S not easy watching an IRA bomber attempt to justify his actions to the daughter of a man he maimed - even if he is an actor.

But that's what you're facing if you venture along to The Bombing of The Grand Hotel, a new play which depicts the lives and losses of two people directly involved in the IRA bombing in Brighton of 1984.

One is Patrick Magee, the bomber, the other Jo Berry, the daughter of one of his victims, and the piece, by Brighton-based writers Julie Everton and Josie Melia, attempts to unravel the unlikely friendship they have since struck up.

While such subject matter seems a clear recipe for controversy, under Paul Hodson’s direction the depiction of events of October 12, 1984 - and all that followed - actually proves more voyeuristic than antagonistic in its appeal as it plays out ‘in the round’ at The Cockpit Theatre in north London, where it opened this month.

With both characters still living – and both contributing to the research undertaken for this production – there is a clear attraction for viewers who have an interest in the Troubles to garner some insight into the devastating Brighton act through this dramatisation.

And that insight is plentiful throughout this short, simplistically set two-act production, which relies on the adaptability of six actors to play the many roles that feature in the journey of one man’s transition from nationalism to terrorism and a woman’s attempt to heal from the loss of her father.

In their lead roles as Patrick and Jo both Ruairi Conaghan and Rachel Blackman bring an impressive depth of understanding to their characters, but neither are played overly sympathetically.

The bravery of Berry shines through Blackman, who effectively encapsulates the spiritual nature of the woman who has managed to share a stage with Magee on a regular basis for more than 15 years.

To Conaghan’s credit he tackles an extremely difficult role with tact and brings a human side to Magee to the stage without going as far as making him likable.

Indeed it is the dynamics between the two lead characters, and the pivotal second act scene of their first meeting and subsequent discussions that throws up, that is most intriguing about this play.

Their dialogue – assuming there is not too much poetic license being employed here – is fascinating as it flows from Magee’s attempt to justify his actions to Berry, claiming “your father was a legitimate target” while explaining how his death led to peace between the islands, to her uncompromising rebuttal.

“I am trying to understand how you think the oppression of your rights, that of your group, was more important than the rights of others. Such as my children's rights to a granddad,” she tells him.

With that comes the shift of power the audience is yearning for in this dialogue - as Berry soon takes and holds centre stage within the negotiation, while the former IRA bomber withers as he is forced to acknowledge the inhumanities of his actions.

In that sense it feels like we are listening to a private discussion we were never meant to hear, wherein lies the voyeuristic charm of this play.

That, however, does not make it any easier to swallow the realities of what has happened to bring both of these people to where we are today, which are unavoidably dredged up in this production.

One thing you can’t help but question is the fact that Magee – who was sentenced to eight life sentences for his part in the bombing, with an order to spend at least 35 years behind bars - served just 14 years in prison in the end and has been a free man since 1999, when he was released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

But what stays with you longer is the sense that at its core this is really a story about Berry.

It’s not a blueprint for reconciling the Troubles, it’s an insight into how one woman reclaimed her life after falling foul of them.

The Bombing of The Grand Hotel runs at The Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone until May 2. It will also run at The Warren pop-up theatre venue in Brighton on May 6, 7 and 9, during the Brighton Fringe Festival. For tickets or further information click here