Brighton Fringe 2015
The Bombing of the Grand Hotel
Venue: The Warren: The Main Space
1984. The height of Thatcher’s power. 30lbs of gelignite rip through the Grand Hotel, Brighton, shattering the Tory party conference. This visceral new play tells the story of the astonishing relationship between Pat Magee, who planted the bomb, and Jo Berry, whose father was killed in the blast.
Can personal reconciliation ever make a difference in the wider world?
When you dramatise something as extraordinary as Jo Berry’s friendship with Pat MacGee, the man who murdered her father with an IRA bomb, the dramatisation, the acting, everything has to live up to that extraordinariness, and to the pain and power of what was a iconic moment. This isn’t just Frost meets Nixon, or some witty reconstruction of the deals Blair made with Brown – it might be political in one sense, but it is a far more personal, visceral and dangerous subject. I went into this sell-out two hour play with some doubts. This is what I saw and felt.
The first half picks up the back story of both participants, in a way that emphasised their ordinary humanity, while not ignoring the huge social and political divide in their backgrounds. The explosion and smoke that signify the actual event, against the grimy backdrop of a blackened Grand Hotel, happens in the first five minutes with enough impact to keep us tensed up. That blackened backdrop remains throughout the whole performance, while the actors create scenes with a minimum of props – it works to ensure that the focus is always on the characters, always on their rationale and their feelings, but with a reminder of why they are there always present. Jo Berry (Rachel Blackman) and Patrick Magee (Ruairi Conaghan) are strongly portrayed, you feel engaged by both of them as characters, and as actors.
One of the strongest moments in this first half though is when you see Jo’s father as a fully rounded human being, not just a Tory grandee, with his own poignantly displayed flaws and strengths, calling round to see his daughter late one evening. It might have been easy, too, to explain away the actions of the IRA or to explain the actions of the British government and therefore somehow minimise the horror of their consequences, but to its great credit the play does not do this. It shows us some of these things –terrified people in the wreckage of the Grand, terrified Catholics in front of roaring soldiers- as it prepares us for the complex drama of this incredible co-operation between Jo Berry & Patrick Magee.
The second half concerns the meeting of these two people, driven by Jo Berry’s decision not to let this loss destroy her. Then begins the portrayal not of a sudden Damascene conversion of hate into trust or anything like that, what begins is a very human story of two individuals reaching out to one another in a remarkable way, sometimes flinching with the awfulness of what they are doing in the eyes of others, but always keeping going with small steps towards one another, with occasional backsteps. The dialogue catches the intensity, the difficulty and the doubt that is there. There is a beautifully observed scene where Jo Berry hands Patrick MacGee a photograph of her father – she thrusts it out towards him. He reaches out and takes it, but holds it at arm’s length for a few seconds, in a moment of distrust, overrides that distrust, and looks long and close, hands it back and thanks her for it. At other moments you see them inching toward a place that might include elements of forgiveness, reconciliation even friendship. It was a very emotional performance – the audience was taut and held, I had tears dripping down my cheeks for much of it.
That’s what this portrayal of the reconciliation of two people is – it’s not one huge gushing emotional act of forgiveness or understanding, it is a winding, sometimes uncertain and sometimes cruelly difficult, path of approach, which continues to this day.
The play does not ignore those other casualties – the woman who on seeing Berry and MacGee together, shouts at them that she will never forgive, she will hold onto her bitterness about her destroyed husband, while Macgee remains free. Jo Berry says my heart goes out to you – and you can understand that her heart does do this, as she knows the crushing nature of violent family death, but as she said at the beginning of the play, she chose not to be destroyed herself. There are these other victims then, who cannot let go of their bitterness, who have no letup in their suffering: the fact that they exist as well magnifies the importance of the immense distance that Jo Berry and Patrick MacGee have travelled. And this play’s intensely real depiction of that distance travelled was a powerful thing in itself.