Posts Tagged ‘Peter McDonald’

I didn’t join in with the seemingly universal euphoria when I saw this play’s premiere 16 years ago at the Royal Court. I warmed to it more in this finely cast revival in the Donmar’s perfect intimate space, but I still can’t see it as the modern classic it’s claimed to me.

You’re virtually inside Tom Scutt’s hyper-realistic pub; it’s as if they built the seating around it rather than built the set on stage. The play starts with a bit of inconsequential everyday business and chatter between publican Brendan and customer Jack. They are joined by another customer Jim, and Jack announces that boy-made-good hotelier Finbar is showing a new lady resident around and will soon be joining them. They speculate on his motives with just a touch of distaste and jealousy.

When Finbar and Valerie arrive, she becomes the focus of attention as they seek to uncover her story and impress her with their stories of fairies and ghosts. The play turns when Valerie tells her tale, which reveals her tragedy. When Finbar and Jim leave, Jack tells his own real story of an unfulfilled life and loneliness as Brendan, who seems to be heading for the same fate, looks on.

This time, the real lives of the three lonely men struck me more. Jim looking after mammy, Jack unable to make the break and escape when he could and Brendan tied to the family pub with visits from his sisters guarding their share. I also enjoyed the running joke of the arrival of the German tourists and the brilliant final reference to them. In the end though, it’s still a bunch of blokes in a pub telling stories, which doesn’t make a modern classic in my book.

The chief pleasure for me was the performances. It’s great to see Brian Cox back on stage in a role that really suits him. It’s good to watch the relatively unsung Peter McDonald develop his craft. Risteard Cooper impresses as he did in his English debut in the NT’s Juno and Dervla Kirwan pulls off the difficult task of portraying her character’s sadness alongside all of the banter. Ardel O’Hanlon was a bit one-note for me, but it didn’t deter from the overall effect of a fine ensemble.

It should really be called ‘The Irish’ because in the end it’s just the Irishness brand on stage – charming, wistful, nostalgic, self-deprecating, conservative. The gift of the gab indeed.

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There are lots of interesting strands to this Conor McPherson play. It’s set in colonial Ireland in the early 19th century where the landowners and their tenant farmers are struggling, the former to maintain their aristocratic lifestyles and the latter to survive. Against this sociopolitical backdrop, there’s the story of one family’s solution to their economic crisis (marry off the daughter!) and the hopelessness of love across the class divide. Add to that a supernatural layer, and you have the recipe for what should be a very good play.

Where it goes wrong is that it doesn’t make enough of the sociopolitical background and over-plays the supernatural, with a touch of implausibility in the way it handles the infatuation of a member of staff for his mistress. A lot revolves around the defrocked priest and his chum, who come to escort the daughter to her wedding in England, but I never really believed in them. The daughter’s relationship with her mother also seems a lot less respectful than you would expect at this time, as was the over-familiarity between the staff and the family.

Rae Smith’s design brilliantly evokes the stately home in decline, just grand enough but just shabby enough too. The performances of Brid Brennan, Peter McDonald and Caoilfhionn Dunne as the staff are excellent, and Ursula Jones is terrific as the virtually wordless grandmother with a nice range of expressions from indignant to wicked and everything in between. The rest of the performances didn’t convince me though.

It kept my attention but it didn’t really satisfy me. This may be another case where the playwright should not be allowed to direct his own work – no challenge and all that.  A bit of a disappointment, I’m afraid.

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