Thursday 20 June 2019

The Cripple of Inishmaan review: Colourful characters light up this very black comedy

The Cripple of Inishmaan

Gaiety Theatre, Dublin Until March 9

Double act: Catherine Walsh and Norma Sheahan in The Cripple of Inishmaan. Photo: Pat Redmond
Double act: Catherine Walsh and Norma Sheahan in The Cripple of Inishmaan. Photo: Pat Redmond

Bad-boy Martin McDonagh, provocateur of the pen, burst onto the scene in the 1990s when he was only in his mid-twenties. The 1997 première production of The Cripple of Inishmaan was presented by the Royal National Theatre in London. Nicholas Hytner's memorable production transferred from the small Cottesloe (now the Dorfman) to the larger Lyttelton, a testimony to its popular appeal.

The action takes place on the second of the three Aran Islands in 1934, at the time American filmmaker Robert Flaherty was making Man of Aran. Like Flaherty's spurious documentary containing an invented shark, McDonagh also serves up a load of cod: there is material about Ireland and the English, and a bit of a slant on the Irish in America. But this national interrogation is all only colour. What McDonagh is really interested in is story, both as form and content.

The central character is Cripple Billy, a boy with a crooked leg and arm. His parents drowned when he was a baby and part of the play is his discovery quest to find out what exactly happened to them. He has the ambition to seek out the film-makers on the neighbouring island and a ticket to America. The dynamic of the play is driven by Johnnypatteenmike, a man who has appointed himself as chief news disseminator for the island.

McDonagh identifies and dramatises a glorious strain of savagery in the human condition. Ruairí Heading is an excellent Billy, batting off the casual abuse he receives and easily taking the audience with him to the emotional climax. Norma Sheahan and Catherine Walsh make a great double-act as the aunts, one of whom is stone mad. Phelim Drew is a heavy-handed Johnnypatteenmike; plenty of dark, needs more light. Rosaleen Linehan as his drunken Mammy is a terrifically funny old soak while Jamie Lee O'Donnell is somewhat uncertain in the crucial part of Slippy Helen, the brazen and aggressive love interest.

Owen MacCarthaigh's towering cliff set design, with Ger Sweeney's rock sculpture, does an elegant job of using the vertical Gaiety stage space. Director Andrew Flynn, for Gaiety Productions, shapes the action with graceful precision.

Twenty-two years after this play first appeared, its political incorrectness has aged in an interesting way. The writing is brutal about disability and race. It gets a lot of laughs from Slippy Helen's experience of casual groping from the local priest. The world has changed, has become more refined in its sensibilities, but this only makes McDonagh's transgressive spirit even funnier.


Poignant drama ageing well

Halcyon Days Viking Theatre, Clontarf Until Feb 6

This revival of Deirdre Kinahan's 2012 play is a reminder of what a fine, emotionally-astute, and elegant writer she is. Set in a nursing home, the 70-minute two-hander dramatises the emerging friendship between Patricia (Úna Crawford) and Sean (Bryan Murray) as they each negotiate their failing strength and health.

Crawford is best known as Renee in RTÉ's Fair City and she sweetly captures the sheer ordinariness of schoolteacher Patricia. Murray will be remembered by older audiences as Flurry Knox in The Irish RM, among other TV roles. In a subtle performance, Murray displays glimmers of the charisma Sean once had as an actor on the London stage. He now accepts the best of his life is past and retreats inside himself. Director Joe Devlin for Directions Out takes a low-key approach, steering the performances towards a persuasive and affective realism. The play gives voice and emotion to the complexity of older men and women.

Music and dance are neatly incorporated as the narrative builds to a poignant climax; every scrap of emotional pay-off is well earned. Sean alternates between a wheelchair and a walking aid; Patricia struggles with debilitating dizzy spells. These characters may be stumbling, but the writing is always sure-footed.

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