Halfway House – Philip Orr’s new play exploring 1916 from the vantage point of 1966

Halfway House posterOn a snowy night in February 1966, two women take refuge from the blizzard in a pub on the Glenshane Pass up in the Sperrins. The Halfway House is midway between the events of 1916 and today, and through the sharp lens of Philip Orr’s fine writing, it proves to be a very effective vantage point to examine the past.

Wearing heavy coats and sitting around a table sipping hot whiskies to warm up, Valerie (Antoinette Morelli) and Bronagh (Louise Parker) start chatting. They share the same home town and occupation. Family members fought in the war. Their fathers both have medals: one is a veteran the Somme, the other the Easter Rising. Both women are looking forward to events marking fiftieth anniversaries of these very different conflicts.

“Sometimes an old grudge can last longer than a world war.”

At first there’s a fair amount of levity. But the banter lessens as the diverse cultures and family history are exposed. Tensions rise, but tempers stay under control. As the audience eavesdropped on their conversation in Larne’s McNeill Theatre last night, we may not have witnessed a meeting of minds, but the quality of listening on stage was echoed in the venue’s café afterwards as people sat round and discussed the play over a cup of coffee.

Halfway House Antoinette LouiseOn top of the naturalistic script and the deft way that historical facts are lightly woven into its narrative, another aspect of the play’s success is the avoidance of preaching equivalence or seeking reconciliation. The use of women’s voices – and the considerable talents of Louise Parker and Antoinette Morelli – also contributes to a more rounded telling to what is so often a man’s tale.

If like me your history is somewhat lacking – neither the Easter Rising nor the Battle of the Somme made it into my history curriculum before I opted out of the subject – Halfway House is a thoughtful introduction that will provide some context at the beginning of a year on which the hand of history will rarely be absent from our shoulders!

You can catch Halfway House during January as it tours through Newry (Tuesday 19th – sold out), Lurgan (Wednesday 20th), Enniskillen (Friday 22nd), Omagh (Saturday 23rd) and Belfast (Thursday 21st, Tuesday 26th). Details of dates, venues and how to book on the Contemporary Christianity website.

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  • SeaanUiNeill

    I was lucky enough to have been in the same audience as Alan at the McNeill theatre on Monday night, when the play opened its run, and watched the taping of the interview just before the audience began to arrive. Beyond what it so tellingly evokes about the ongoing legacy of events that happened a hundred years ago, “Halfway House” is a most skilful one-act play. It powerfully displays that keen edge of vivid textual playwriting craftsmanship and insightful that Philip Orr has so carefully honed alongside some telling tropes he has drawn from our unique political culture.

    Importantly, the attitudes to both the Ulster Rebellion (the Gun-running, and creation of the UVF) and its aftermath in the bloody Thiepval attack on 1st July 1916, set against a story of individual participation in Easter Week, is presented through the eyes and attitudes not of the participants themselves, but of the two daughters of actual participants engaging with one another at a moment exactly half way between our time and the inceptive events. We are reminded that we too, the audience, are primarily inheriting attitudes, not forming them for ourselves in the white heat of those generative moments in which these attitudes were first cast.

    Philip’s writing is vividly presented on stage by two rather brilliant performances where both of the actors successfully convey the all too human misunderstandings of the values, each of them grasping and then failing to grasp the stories of the other woman, highly polarised stories that inevitably characterises their political and cultural inheritances, but which unsurprisingly mingle on that common ground of coming from the same familiar part of the country and knowing many of the same people. Importantly, the play conveys that both women are “right” in much of what they think and feel, and both women are almost as entirely just as “wrong” about these things also, the kind of truth that only art can convey.

    Highly recommended to anyone actually interested in a form of remembrance
    that encourages genuine reconciliation without ignoring those historical realities that will ensure ongoing rancour if they are all too carelessly suppressed.

  • tanyaj

    Thank you very much @SeaanUiNeill:disqus and Alan – am very much looking forward to seeing the play when it reaches the wild west on Friday.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Delighted to do anything I may to help the play attract a good audience. Over and above his insightfulness and political honesty, Philip is an excellent playwright and the play is quite compelling in itself.

    Let us hope that the snows do not return to block the Glenshane pass again against anyone travelling to see the play from the tame east…………..