Can rules govern conscience? This surprisingly topical question is one of the themes running through Over The Bridge, Sam Thompson's groundbreaking play, which is being restaged 50 years after its first production.
It received a rapturous reception back then, described by one critic as “a brickbat hurled violently against bigotry”; it attracted new audiences into the theatre — shipyard workers eager to see their lives writ large.
The play’s troubled genesis has been well documented. Rejected by the board of the Group Theatre, it was staged by a new company, formed by the theatre’s former head of productions, Jimmy Ellis.
So — does the drama withstand the test of time, or do the bad old days of bigotry and bile seem little more than a distant memory in our all-embracing Northern Ireland?
Greenshoot Productions has dusted it down and writer Martin Lynch has buffed up the script, adapting it for present-day audiences while remaining true to the original.
Working as director on this most masculine of plays is Rachel O’Riordan. Her production is imaginatively set in the Waterfront Studio — two stages, two levels, an array of ropes and ladders and a cast of 20 ship workers going about their business.
The play has been given a more contemporary feel in Lynch’s rewrite, but there’s no escaping the sectarian bigotry which casts its shadow over the shipyard.
There is even the discreet inclusion of two bowler hats in this most Protestant of workplaces.
Frankie McCafferty is the play's anchor as draughtsman Rabbie White, but Walter McMonagle is the drama’s heart as veteran union man Davy Mitchell, who risks his life in support of Catholic fellow worker Peter O’Boyle (played with great sincerity by Billy Carter).
Director O’Riordan has assembled a five star cast for this landmark production — aside from McCafferty and McMonagle, the drama features fine performances from Michael Liebmann, Lalor Roddy and Tony Flynn; the scenes are interspersed with songs from young Buddy Holly wannabe, Ephraim, Matthew McElhinney.
Lynch’s adaptation still strikes a chord with its message of solidarity and decency.