Saturday, 30th June 2018 – The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Noel Coward Theatre, London
London theatre these days seems to be in the throes of a slightly odd period, where it’s still wall-to-wall musicals (gods help us), many of them old, some of them revivals, some of them new but rehashing old music, and the odd completely new one, but there are other more interesting things going on, some of them quite unexpected, many of them at least intriguing if not actually completely brilliant. Now musicals really don’t hold much appeal for me – if I’m going to watch people sing on stage as they tell a story, then it’s opera all the way. However, Saturday was one of those “must give this a go” days.
News that Aidan Turner was going to make his London stage debut had been circulating for a while last Autumn, and there is always the fascination when someone whose film and TV work you know well takes to the boards. Will they be any good? Will it be an unmitigated disaster? Can they actually act when called on to do so six days a week and two matinees in front of a live audience? Sometimes it’s a triumph – Ian McKellen naturally (in pantomime, in Pinter, in Shakespeare, probably reading the phone book should he choose), Richard Armitage (in a harrowing version of the Crucible), Keira Knightly (in the Children’s Hour), sometimes it really isn’t – Martin bloody Freeman (irritating beyond belief in Richard III, proving himself to be very one note), sometimes it’s a bit mixed – Sean Bean (Macbeth, where his diction could have used more clarity but at least he was convincing in terms of emotion).
Anyway, we reckoned it was worth a punt, even at London theatre prices, particularly when we realised what the piece was. Martin McDonagh’s “The Lieutenant of Inishmore“ is among the blackest of black comedies, as well as possibly being the ultimate shaggy-dog (or should that be cat) story. The wikipedia entry that gives a synopsis of the play probably gives the best summation of what the plot entails: “The story is set in Ireland in 1993. The Northern Ireland peace process is taking its faltering first steps, and INLA man Mad Padraic is hard at work pulling out the toenails of Belfast drug pusher James, when the news comes through that his beloved cat, Wee Thomas, is poorly. So instead of slicing off James’s right nipple, as planned, he heads back home to the island of Inishmore. But, when he arrives at the family home, he discovers that Wee Thomas isn’t sick but has had his brains squeezed out like toothpaste. Padraic, a man considered too mad for the IRA and sorely trying the patience of his INLA comrades, is intent on revenge, even if that means wiping out his own father. Just as he’s about to put a bullet through Dad’s head, there’s an unexpected knock at the door.”
The Noel Coward Theatre itself puts it rather more pithily: “Who knocked Mad Padraic’s cat over on a lonely road on the island of Inishmore and was it an accident? He’ll want to know when he gets back from a stint of torture and chip-shop bombing in Northern Ireland: he loves that cat more than life itself.
Needless to say there’s a great deal more than just that going on, but in case you don’t know the full story I’ll won’t be responsible for spoiling it for you. Suffice it to say that I’m pretty sure only an Irish writer could have got away with portraying Irish characters like these, and I’m also pretty sure that Martin McDonagh knew this. In some respects everyone is a broad brush stroke cliche, but there are other themes at work too, including the utter futility of violence (of which there is a great deal), and the stupidity that grips some people. The only halfway intelligent individual turns out to be a teenage girl, and Mairead’s grip on sanity is tenuous at best. The play was written in the early 1990s, but not staged for several years (until 2001), possibly because it was generally felt that it was slightly too soon to be poking fun at and ridiculing the IRA, and for that matter the INLA, until the ink was dry on the Good Friday Agreement. Given the current uncertainty over the future of the border between Ireland an Northern Ireland it seems timely to stage it again now…
The work runs to around 90 minutes excluding the interval (which probably isn’t really necessary but without it the theatre would take less money), and it’s bleakly funny all the way through, especially in the second half when everyone is double-crossing everyone else and you find yourself laughing at things that you really probably shouldn’t. The sting in the tail can be seen coming from a short distance out but that really doesn’t lessen the impact of it, when it turns out that the trail of bodies was all for nothing and completely unnecessary.
The cast were excellent all round, Turner playing an unhinged psychopath who loves his cat dearly, but really isn’t exactly fond of anyone else, even when he thinks he’s fallen in love with Mairead, with a great deal of energy and superb comic timing.
He’s also clearly enjoying the language, peppered with swearing as it is. He also seems to enjoy the way his character can swing from maudlin sentimentality when mourning for his cat, to manic fury directed at those he thinks are responsible for Wee Thomas’ untimely end.
Turner is ably supported by the rest of the cast, though I did initially find Charlie Murphy (Mairead) a little hard to understand as she seemed to get off to a racing start! She soon settled and after that she was fine, setting just the right tone as a teenager with a romanticised notion of the “hero” that didn’t stack up to reality. By the end, she’s a much different character though.
Chris Walley as Davey, Mairead’s brother and regular “borrower” of her pink bicycle with which he is accused of killing Wee Thomas, was especially good in what is his professional stage debut, and he made for a great double act with Denis Conway as Donny, Padraic’s father. Their hare-brained scheme to boot polish a ginger cat until it’s black and pass it off as the late, lamented Wee Thomas was particularly hysteria-inducing, and they get some of the best lines too.
Brian Martin, as James, managed to do a lot with his part despite the greater part of it hanging upside down as his character is tortured by Padraic. It shouldn’t have been funny, but it was. I especially enjoyed him walking on his hands to get as far away from Padraic as possible, along with his claims for the medical benefits of the drugs he’s been peddling to students.
That just leaves the threesome of INLA members who are after Padraic for his threat to create a splinter group from what is already of course a splinter group. They are led by Christy, played by Will Irvine. Christy has lost an eye along the way, to Padraic, and he’s generally not impressed by his former colleague. He and his two sidekicks are much given to arguing among themselves, especially over who was behind a number of well known quotes. Their bickering really doesn’t help their efficiency, and their scheme to lure Padraic to his home is a prime example of the hard-at-thinking at work!
Brendan (Daryl McCormack) and Joey (Julian Moore-Cook) are the two hapless but argumentative sidekicks and do a fine job of proving that their characters are slightly less idiotic than Davey, who is clearly the eedjits eedjit.
All in all, a very funny, back as can be work, that highlights the idiocy of unthinking patriotism, violence as a method of change, and revenge. Oh, and there is a real cat but it – disappointingly – doesn’t get a credit. Don’t go if you’re offended by violence, swearing, cruelty to animals or the depiction of blood, guts and body parts. Otherwise, do go. It’s very, very funny.