fri 31/10/2014

The Cripple of Inishmaan, Noël Coward Theatre | Theatre reviews, news & interviews

The Cripple of Inishmaan, Noël Coward Theatre

Daniel Radcliffe stars in an underpowered revival of Martin McDonagh's modern classic

Daniel Radcliffe as Billy and Sarah Greene as HelenPhotographs by Johan Persson

Martin McDonagh's play, which premiered in 1997, here receives its first major revival as part of Michael Grandage's star-studded first season at the Noël Coward Theatre. It's a minor modern classic, full of the London Irish writer's trademark dark comedy and scabrous wit and, with its guying of Irish sentimentality and Ireland's obsession with the past, is a bravura postmodern reimagining of J M Synge's Playboy of the Western World, which is also set in the rugged Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland and has a misfit young man at its heart.

The play is set in 1934 on Inishmaan. On the neighbouring island of Inishmore American filmmaker Robert Flaherty is making Man of Aran, a kind of constructed reality film before the term was invented, and mocked for its diddly-dee view of the simple rural Irish. Billy (Daniel Radcliffe), a cripple whose parents who died when he was an infant and who has been raised by spinster sisters Kate and Eileen Osbourne (Ingrid Craigie and Gillian Hanna), sees his chance to escape the constant taunts from villagers and the confines of living on a small island where “news” - gossip and rumour - is disseminated by Johnnypateenmike (Pat Shortt), a local bachelor trying to kill off his old ma (June Watson) by plying her with whiskey and poteen.

Billy tells softhearted local fisherman Babbybobby (a nicely understated Padraic Delaney), whose wife died of TB, an egregious tale about having only months to live from the same disease and so persuades him to take him in his curragh to visit the film set. Billy is secretly in love with the feisty Helen (Sarah Greene), who has a love of “egg-pegging” - throwing eggs - whether at priests who touch her up in the pews, the younger brother (a captivating Conor MacNeill) she taunts, or anyone else she may take a sudden dislike to that day. She's furious when Flaherty doesn't cast her in his film but whisks Billy off to Hollywood to give hm a screen test.

Although it's an ensemble piece, Radcliffe - not yet free of Harry Potter references despite his West End and Broadway successes, but he's getting there - is the marquee attraction here, yet turns in a lacklustre performance in a play brimful with deliberately showy characters.

His accent is problematic, even to those who wouldn't be able to pinpoint where it comes from - but then, neither can he, as he veers through several Irish counties during the evening before settling on something that sounds vaguely Dublin (the other side of the country). I mention the accent because I suspect in concentrating so hard on trying to get it right, Radcliffe loses something in his performance. He struggles to convey the complexity of a lost soul yearning for things he can never have, but also someone who is prepared to lie to get what he wants and walks out on the aunts who dote on him. He's not helped by Grandage's underpowered production, which has one or two dips in pace after the interval.

The evening's greatest joys - apart from the whipcrack dialogue - are offered by two pairings who spark off each other brilliantly; Watson and Shortt (pictured above) as the bickering mother and son, whom she calls “the most boring fecker in Ireland”, and Hanna and Craigie as the maiden aunts, constantly repeating what the other has just said. Greene, meanwhile, gives a riproaring performance and steals every scene she's in.

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