Thursday 20 June 2013

Theatre review: The Cripple of Inishmaan

Ireland can't be such a bad place if Daniel Radcliffe wants to go there. It's the mid-point of Michael Grandage's residency at the Noël Coward Theatre and Radcliffe takes the title role in a revival of Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan. Inspired by the filming of documentary Man of Aran on the islands off Ireland in the 1930s, the play's rural community all look for their own ways of escaping the monotony of their isolated lives. Cripple Billy (Radcliffe) is orphaned, severely disabled in one arm and one leg, and has spent most of his life living with his "aunties" Eileen (Gillian Hanna) and Kate (Ingrid Craigie.) They run a small local shop with a shortage of eggs and sweets (for reasons that become apparent) but a plentiful supply of tinned peas. Billy's spent his life being mercilessly mocked for his disabilities and, unable to work, likes to get away by sitting in a field staring at cows - until the arrival of a film crew on neighbouring Inishmore gives him a plan to escape to Hollywood.

McDonagh's plays tend to be the blackest of comedies but although the residents of Inishmaan regularly dish out cruel language to each other and occasionally throw a bit of violence in as well, this isn't as dark an affair as I was expecting. Instead Cripple plays more as a pastiche of Irish comic stereotypes - Father Ted with added stone-throwing - and is constructed largely around numerous running jokes and getting to know a cast of larger-than-life characters.

And it certainly is about multiple characters, although Billy is the title role and the one the action revolves around, he shares pretty much equal stage time with the rest of the cast (all Irish, and being around them probably helps Radcliffe make the passable stab at the accent he does.) This is unquestionably an ensemble piece, and with the publicity being centred on a single star name it says a lot for the rest of the cast that the audience's warm response doesn't change in the scenes where he's not on stage. In fact apart from the inevitable physical symptoms Radcliffe wisely plays Billy as the most low-key character in the piece, his limp and mangled arm inviting the attention and insults of the villagers but his personality contrastingly unobtrusive.

Hanna and Craigie nicely differentiate the two adoptive aunts, Eileen more grimly pragmatic while Billy's disappearance sends Kate into herself, drifting out of conversations with people and chatting to stones instead. Pat Shortt has an intriguing character in the village gossip Johnnypateenmike, trading news nobody wants to hear in exchange for food, and spending the rest of his energies on trying to poison his 90-year-old mother (June Watson) with alcohol - a poisoning attempt she's all too happy to take her chances with. Pádraic Delaney's Babbybobby appears to be the face of stoical decency on the island but when he cracks he does so spectacularly. And the closest thing to the levels of cruelty McDonagh's shown elsewhere comes from Helen (Sarah Greene,) the girl Billy's in love with despite the fact that she's the most vicious of all in her verbal attacks on him. She herself feels trapped as the girl everyone (particularly the clergy) wants to grope but nobody wants to kiss, and she tends to express it by throwing eggs at people (the wanton destruction of eggs apparently being one of 2013's unexpected theatrical memes.)

Christopher Oram's revolving set, a bit more understated than the last two in the Noël Coward, taps right into the folksy charm that the play half-mocks, half-appropriates, and creates a world of ragged, claustrophobic beauty - this is the Ireland whose scenery the characters are so proud of, but whose virtues they need to convince themselves of in one of the many running gags ("Ireland can't be such a bad place if a German / a black fella / a dentist wants to come here.") The cast seem to be having a lot of fun which comes across to the audience, and Grandage's production is very funny, but it stops shy of really digging into the darkness in McDonagh's world.

The Cripple of Inishmaan by Martin McDonagh is booking until the 31st of August at the Noël Coward Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

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