Well-written, well-acted ‘The Kings of the Kilburn High Road’ grants vibrant insights into the lives of Irish navies in England

Non-Irish have a somewhat warped view of the Irish – they see a light-hearted, humorous, carefree, sociable race of people. That may well be, but scratch the surface and the full truth that emerges is somewhat different, darker.

Naturally enough, many Irish will never admit to that. Suicide, they’ll say, never happens in Ireland. Neither does sex.

Cavan-based Livin’ Dred Theatre Company’s two-night performance of the classic play ‘The Kings of the Kilburn High Road’ several days ago at An Grianan, Letterkenny, Donegal presents vivid, often uncomfortable, glimpses into that other – more secretive – side of the Irish nature – one marked by depression, suicide and alcoholism.

Not that passion is lacking in this fine production. Not at all. Fact is it’s brimming with the stuff, loyalty and friendship being highlights of it, making for a gripping, flawless 90-minutes that at times rides the rails between bawdy, buoyant and bitter. And the set designed by Kate Moylan and built by Mickey McGuirk is all-embracing, old-style, solid, classic and comprehensive.

The Kings of the Kilburn High Road, Irish theater

Photo used with permission from Livin’ Dred Theatre Company

Written by Jimmy Murphy, directed by Padraic McIntyre and acted by Charlie Bonner, Seamus O’Rourke, Phelim Drew, Arthur Riordan and Malcolm Adams, ‘The Kings of the Kilburn High Road’ is a production not to be missed. Fortunately for some, it is now on a national tour of Ireland.

For me, seated centrally in row C alongside a former military operative, a former Irish detective and a young actress, the play held added meaning, one I was to discuss by chance with a stranger outside in the parking lot afterwards.

Many years ago, I – like thousands of young Irish men both before and after me – found myself standing roadside at seven in the morning in the vicinity of Kilburn High Road waiting for the lorries to pass by with foremen looking for able-bodies to work the London construction sites. It was tough, often backbreaking, labor but there was also a sense of camaraderie as well. We were Irish after all in the land of the Sassenach, weren’t we? Together we are strong, we thought. It didn’t matter if every night in the dark in the four-to-a-room Shepherd’s Bush kip where I slept, I’d sweep back the blanket and run a bar of wet soap over the sheet to capture the fleas. Or did it?

This brilliantly written and acted play captures the feelings and emotions of people like myself and so many others – the exhilaration of going ‘across the water’ to earn our fortune; the sudden dawning harsh truth of reality, the settling for less and the sadness and homesickness that fell upon our shoulders like a dark bird that never wanted to fly away.

Livin’ Dred Theatre Company, live shows in Ireland

Photo used with permission from Livin’ Dred Theatre Company

I was one of the lucky ones. I managed to get out, away from the shovel and the spade, away from morning ‘heart-attack-on-a-plate’ breakfasts, away from the voracious fleas. Others unfortunately didn’t, some ending up roadside, horizontal, in paupers’ graves. ‘The Kings of the Kilburn High Road’ tells the tale, by turns passionate and pathetic, of what happened to five Irishmen who strive to ignore the obvious yet end up admitting the truth and wearing their hearts – some withered and broken – on their sleeves.

As for the stranger outside in the parking lot, he – like me – spent some of his days on the sites ‘shoveling shite’ as we used to say with some degree of affection – he in Glasgow Cross, I across London. His fondest memory: “the best meal ah’ve ever had. Lambs liver. Cooked on a spade, over an open fire.”

For better or for worse, we survived – and our memories of that time come in all shapes, sizes, smells, tastes and colors.

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