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To Have to Shoot Irishmen by Lizzie Nunnery at The Omnibus Theatre

Russell Richardson as Vane and Elinor Lawless as Hanna -To Have To Shoot Irishmen - Photo by Mike Massaro
Russell Richardson as Vane and Elinor Lawless as Hanna -To Have To Shoot Irishmen – Photo by Mike Massaro

The simmering tensions continue to simmer in To Have To Shoot Irishmen until one begins to wonder if things will ever reach boiling point. I’d known about James Connolly (1868-1916), mostly because there was a raft of plays about the Easter Rising of 1916 when its centenary came along, but I must admit I’d not come across the story of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington (1878-1916) (Gerard Kearns) before seeing this production. It’s reasonably easy, having seen the play, to work out why this might be: Sheehy-Skeffington was against the approach of the likes of Connolly, which was to obtain independence for Ireland by any means possible, including violence. Pacifism can be an interesting perspective to consider, but to be blunt, it doesn’t make for the punchy (in more ways than one) kind of theatre that sets an audience on edge.

It’s a relatively calm play – until Sir Francis Vane (1861-1934) (Russell Richardson), a major in the Royal Munster Fusiliers, locks horns with Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington (1877-1946) (Elinor Lawless), in the aftermath of what happened to ‘Frank’ (as Sheehy-Skeffington is named in the programme, which refers to the major as ‘Vane’: there may or may not be a pun on him being ‘vain’ in there somewhere) after the Easter Uprising.

In short, and without giving it all away (even though the events in question can easily be found online), Frank had actually attempted to stop the looting, as far as he was able, but was arrested by the British anyway. As far as this play would have it, Vane thought Captain John Bowen-Colthurst (1880-1965), also based at what was then called the Portobello Barracks, was mentally unstable, and not fit to be a soldier. It was Bowen-Colthurst who ordered the summary execution of Frank (and, though the production does not mention them, as far as I can recall, two journalists, Thomas Dickson and Patrick MacIntyre).

The songs in the production are distinctly Irish, and there’s a touch of actor-musicianship to enjoy too, but if it’s the jaunty tunes in the style of ‘Whisky in the Jar’ you’re after, such songs are to be found elsewhere. Fair enough: Hanna, in particular, is mourning those who have died before their time. But the songs can get rather repetitive – an early number about the Irish standing ‘shoulder to shoulder’ just kept reiterating ‘shoulder to shoulder’ almost as many times as the phrase ‘strong and stable’ was bandied about in the 2017 General Election campaign.

The set (Rachael Rooney) is intentionally chaotic, portraying the Sheehy-Skeffington home in a state of disarray after it was turned upside down by the British, but also metaphorically depicting Ireland (all of it) in turmoil. William (Robbie O’Neill), an 18-year-old soldier, provides another perspective to proceedings. Having stood guard over Frank, he was one of the men ordered by Bowen-Colthurst to shoot him, hence the play’s title. The production’s partial re-enactment of an enquiry in the aftermath of Frank’s passing (which one – there were several – I couldn’t work out) is not altogether kind to William, though perhaps he doesn’t help himself by taking the ‘I was only following orders’ line of argument.

The play misses a minor opportunity at the end by not revealing what happened to Vane, or indeed to William, or Frank and Hanna’s young son. But it’s Hanna that I kept being drawn to, as Lawless’ version of her had passion and zeal, and as she admits in a confession to Vane, she has not always adhered to her husband’s pacifist tendencies. There’s just about sufficient detail to grasp the long-lasting impact of events that happened so quickly in a nuanced and thoughtful production.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

Inspired by the true story of Francis Sheehy Skeffington, an Irish nationalist and pacifist who was murdered during the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, the new play explores the fractured national identity and the violent legacy of British military intervention in Ireland.

Almanac Arts in association with Liverpool Irish Festival present the premiere of
TO HAVE TO SHOOT IRISHMEN
A new play with songs by Lizzie Nunnery
Director: Gemma Kerr
Designer: Rachael Rooney / Lighting Designer: Richard Owen
Original music composed by Vidar Norheim and Lizzie Nunnery
Sound design by Vidar Norheim / Dramaturgy by Lindsay Rodden
Assistant Director Chantell Walker / Associate Producer Claire Bigley

Opening venue: Omnibus Theatre, Clapham 2-20 October 2018
National tour: 26th Oct – 6 November 2018

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1 thought on “To Have to Shoot Irishmen by Lizzie Nunnery at The Omnibus Theatre”

  1. Jonathan O'Grady

    “To have to shoot Irishmen” comes from the mouth of Bowen-Colthurst. The day before Dickson, MacIntyre and Sheehy Skeffington were executed, Bowen-Colthurst said to Sir Francis Vane “Is it not dreadful, Sir Francis, to have to shoot Irishmen?”

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