Privilege as it is to play the title character in a West End play, few actors would have wanted to be in Daniel Radcliffe’s shoes on the opening night and press performance of Martin McDonough’s Cripple of Inishmaan. Pottermania struck St Martin’s Lane, fans collecting outside the Noel Coward theatre, naively clamouring for a glimpse of the Potter star, whilst members of the press, poised with their pens and high expectations, start to take notes the moment he steps (or indeed shuffles) onto stage. The publicity, not in anyway relating to the cruel, Irish comedy, makes it abundantly clear that the newly chiselled Radcliffe is the selling point for this, the third play in the star-studded Michael Grandage season; the audience held their breath in anticipation.
As it happens though, the star of this production is not Radcliffe, but is in fact the formidable Martin McDonagh – arguably the most important Irish playwright of his time. McDonagh transports the audience to the small, backwards village of Inishmaan with its delightful array of inhabitants, predominately interested in each others business (non more so than the infuriating Johnnypateenmike played by the brilliantly repugnant Pat Shortt) and newly confounded by a rumoured opportunity to be in a film, an opportunity that Billy is unwilling to let slide. McDonagh’s comedy is replete with Shakespearean linguistic playfulness. You could bathe in the misunderstandings, the genial twitterings of dogmatic idiots, the sharing and skewing of overheard secrets and the tickled audience are inevitably left grappling for the truth. Each scene, neatly self-contained and beautifully composed, alters our perspective and understanding of the unfolding events. It is credit to Grandage that McDonagh’s words are so well cushioned and delivered, wrung of their comedy, purpose and nebulous meaning in this hilarious satirisation of a rural 1930’s Ireland, exploding some myths and reaffirming others.
Sarah Greene is exceptional as foul mouthed Helen McCormick
Radcliffe plays an endearing and impassioned Billy, restless to leave the protective clutches of his two aunts and longing to escape the trappings of his restrictive village label: ‘Cripple Billy.’ He demonstrates great physically ability but has only a tentative grasp of the strong accent and the dynamic vocal variation embodied by the other actors.Yes! There are other actors in it, and very good ones too. Ingrid Craigie and Gillian Hanna as Kate and Eileen Osbourne, and June Watson as Mammy are particularly notable for their Dickensian ferocity, each giving detailed performances that simultaneously attract and repel, but Sarah Greene is exceptional as foul mouthed Helen McCormick, the volatile subject of Billy’s affections. The sense that the village will remain forever unchanged is perfectly captured by Christopher Oram’s design; the simple use of a revolve mirrors the globe’s daily rotation and eventually takes us back around to where the play started.
Cripple of Inishmaan is perhaps not McDonagh’s most ferocious play but it is relentlessly cruel, offering hope and then brutally taking it away again. Just when the audience have a grasp over what is happening, McDonagh sweeps the carpet from under our feet, leaving only a torturous ambiguity, much like that felt by Billy in his attempt to understand the death of his parents. And before you ask, no, Radcliffe does not get his magic wand out, but he does tackle the challenging role nobly, doing credit to his pedigree.
Runs until 31st August