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The Sword and the Sand review at Lyric Theatre, Belfast – ‘a promising idea’

Marty Maguire and Paddy Jenkins in The Sword and the Sand at Lyric Theatre, Belfast
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Peace ostensibly broke out in Northern Ireland in 1998 with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Since then, the place has been slowly working its way towards some kind of normality.

Writer Pearse Elliott knows plenty about what passes for normality in communities damaged by years of conflict and neglect and he translates it into this uncompromising, potentially intriguing play.

The idle hands of former paramilitaries are now put to a variety of uses, from constitutional politics to racketeering and protectionism. Self-styled ex-freedom fighter Duff (Marty Maguire) makes a lucrative living out of protecting his community from the drug dealers, thereby indulging his own vain, sexually exploitative, racist, psychopathic tendencies.

Embracing the new reality of Belfast life, he takes in as a glorified slave the compliant Azir (Mark Asante) – whom he nicknames Bin Laden – a refugee who has witnessed his wife and daughters blown to smithereens and his small son lost at sea aboard a creaky, overloaded dinghy.

Duff’s swaggering sidekick Cricky (Gerard Jordan Quinn) fantasises about offing the criminals who threaten their supremacy before falling under the influence of the cultured Azir, who has survived far worse than the regime operated by these small-time hoods.

The material offers real possibilities for dramatic tension but the uninteresting dialogue, two-dimensional characters and swiftly resolved plot lines give director Martin McSharry and the quality cast little to work with. Elliott is an accomplished writer and he should be encouraged to revisit the play, giving it extra time and space in which to grow and deliver its important, under-examined message.

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New play that asks hard questions about post-conflict Belfast undermined by two-dimensional characters and dialogue