It’s back to the Noel Coward Theatre for the third play in the Michael Grandage season, Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan. We’d not seen anything by Mr McDonagh before, and I think I was expecting something rather dour and dismal, a tale of Old Aran out of J M Synge; Riders to the Sea meets Brian Friel, that kind of thing. What I wasn’t expecting was to be in convulsions of laughter before the first minute was out.
Christopher Oram’s set is suitably sparse and gives a credible impression of the cold poverty and drabness of the Isles of Aran in 1934. The grocers shop that has everything you need provided it’s peas or unpopular sweets, the shore with the fishing boat, the featureless bedrooms and the makeshift cinema with a sheet for a screen are all quietly impressive, help the story move forward and provide a sense of intimacy.
These Michael Grandage productions are promoted as star vehicles – Simon Russell Beale, Judi Dench, Sheridan Smith, Jude Law; and for this production, Daniel Radcliffe. There’s obviously a huge temptation for members of the audience to take sneaky pictures of the stars, which of course as we all know is Strictly Forbidden. To emphasise the fact, as the curtain was about to rise, two of the ushers stood at the front of the stage and held up little laminated sheets with a picture of a camera crossed out and the words “no photos”. They held them there, defiantly, in silence, for what seemed an age. In an act of civil disobedience, the lady behind me said to her companion, “go on, take a picture of them”. Spelling the message out in this rather laborious and atmosphere-killing way looked terribly out of place. Presumably it’s ok to take a picture with a phone, as mobiles weren’t crossed out on the laminate.
Onto the production. I’m not going to outline the story, because I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it’s a constantly surprising and delightfully honest development of the characters. As I mentioned earlier, I am new to the work of Martin McDonagh and it’s a thrill to find out that this play is so exquisitely written. It’s full of subject material that is really located where angels fear to tread but McDonagh’s lightness of touch and incredible ear for the Irish lilt of language makes humour possible in the darkest areas. It’s a gift not dissimilar to Ayckbourn’s, to make you laugh at something savage; the Aran Islands in 1934 were obviously not the most “politically correct” of places, and there is a lot of poking fun and discrimination against “Cripple Billy”. Mind you, all the characters seem to poke fun at and discriminate against everyone, so to an extent Billy is no different from anyone else.
It’s also a very exciting and entertaining story with at least two coups de theatre. Just when you think it might become mawkishly sentimental McDonagh surprises you with an amazingly powerful twist. Inishmaan is not a sentimental place. It’s home to serial bullying, disrespectful behaviour and physical violence, so it is. Life is tough, when the threat of TB or a liver eroded by drink is never far away, so it is no surprise that the glamour of Hollywood might become just too tempting a prospect.
And of course this production is full of great performances. We saw Daniel Radcliffe a few years ago when he was in Equus and there is no doubting his extraordinary stage presence. As Billy he gives a superb performance of a young man with cerebral palsy, but a huge determination to make the best of his life against the odds. Technically his performance is faultless – his acting of his disability is 100% convincing and you sense his understanding of his own character is immense. He’s one of those actors who’s just a joy to watch. Nevertheless, it’s also the terrific ensemble of Irish actors who make this production so successful.
I particularly loved the performances of Ingrid Craigie as the slightly mentally fragile Kate and Gillian Hanna as the no-nonsense Eileen, Billy’s two aunts. They work together so well that you really would believe they are a pair of sisters who have lived together in the backwaters of Ireland all their lives. The lyrical nature of their speech patterns really adds to the humour when they are mocking each other, and to the pathos when they are up to their eyeballs in emotions. They’re both brilliant performances, masterclasses in running the gamut A to Z.
There’s also a superb performance by Pat Shortt as local gossip Johnnypateenmike, convincingly bringing out both the loveable rogue and cruel bully aspects of the character. Sarah Greene is a glamorously dangerous Helen, the prospective sexual light at the end of many a local young man’s tunnel; spitting out her insults with childish glee, she tramples over the feelings of everyone with whom she comes into contact. Even Billy hopes he might have a chance with her, despite her hoots of mocking derision.
I very much liked Padraic Delaney as the seemingly laid back Babbybobby, owner of the little boateen (there seems to be an “een” on the end of half the words in this play) that can take islanders to the mainland – and beyond. And there’s a wonderful performance from June Watson as Johnnypateenmike’s Mammy; a drunken old sot who ought to be at death’s door with the alcohol she’s consumed but seems to thrive on it, much to her son’s disappointment. Indeed, the whole cast is excellent.
You come away from the play with a sense of real humanity, despite all the dreadful things that get done and said, and a real appreciation for the author’s understanding of his characters and landscape. It got a massive cheer, and not just because Daniel Radcliffe has a sizeable fan base, but because it’s a simply brilliant production. I would definitely count it the most successful of the season so far. Highly recommended.