On 12 October 1984, an IRA bomb ripped through Brighton’s Grand Hotel. The target was the Conservative Party conference, held in Brighton that year; five men and women were murdered as they slept by bomber Patrick Magee. Among them was a Tory whip named Anthony Berry – and in the year 2000, the victim’s daughter Jo Berry travelled to Ireland to meet with his killer. The Bombing Of The Grand Hotel tells the story of that meeting, of the pair’s improbable reconciliation, and of their work as peace ambassadors in the present day.
Many, many lives were changed by the bombing, and there are many valid perspectives on the events of 1984. So it’s troublesome that in this play, the playwrights’ voices are all but indistinguishable from Berry’s and Magee’s. They, and only they, speak with authority; any other viewpoint admitted to the script is instantly and perhaps unconsciously undermined. A devastating account of the death of Muriel Maclean – who was in the room where the bomb went off – is diminished by being presented by two brutish, unlikeable policemen. And a grieving widow who dares disagree with Berry is treated even worse: cast as a disruptive heckler, she’s there to be patronised or pitied, but certainly not to be heard.
Furthermore, for a play that’s all about understanding your opponents, there’s an unpleasant political tribalism poking through the script. The real Patrick Magee has repeatedly spoken of the dangers of ciphers – of how important it was to recognise Anthony Berry as a human, not just the Tory he despised. So what are we to make of the play’s opening scene, with its Hooray Henry stereotypes cavorting in the hotel bar? When one of them shouts “Let’s do it for Maggie”, isn’t he a cipher, too?
You could argue, perhaps, that this is merely setting context – presenting the world as it appeared to Magee back in 1984. But that brings me to another point: the most interesting and important part of Magee’s own journey is entirely absent from the script. Just before the interval, we find him in an English prison, sworn to continue his battle with the State even within its walls. Yet by the time the lights come up again, he’s made his peace with Loyalists and decided it’s “time for talking”. How did he get from there to here? It seems we’ll never know.
Whatever reason Wildspark Theatre had for leaving that out, it certainly wasn’t pressure of time. The first part of the play is stylishly presented, but frustratingly languid – an artistic rendering of the basics of the story, at the expense of genuine insight into the politics or personalities involved. The second half’s completely different and much more satisfying, but it too has its own set of flaws. The meeting between Berry and Magee is nothing less than electric, and effective in humanising characters who’ve seemed distant until then, but before long their earnest dialogue comes to feel like a lecture transposed to the stage.
None of this criticism, however, is any discredit to a near-flawless cast. Ruairi Conaghan, playing Magee, has arguably the most difficult role; as time goes by he segues from aggression to introspection, an elegant parallel of the real man’s personal epiphany. Rachel Blackman, as Berry, is composure personified, yet offers moments of piercing vulnerability to establish the play’s emotional heart.
In the final analysis though, The Bombing Of The Grand Hotel is far too simplistic a treatment of a fearsomely complex tale. I went into the play inspired by Magee and Berry’s story, and hoping I’d learn how to find an equal capacity for understanding within my own soul. When I came out of the theatre 90 minutes later, I still admired their spirit. But sadly, with so little genuine debate to reflect on, I found the play had taught me absolutely nothing at all.