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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN
at the Noel Coward

CIRCUMSCRIBED LIVES
By SAM MARLOWE

  Daniel Radcliffe and Sarah Greene/ Ph: Johan Persson

“It’ll all end in tears. Tears, or death, or worse.” There’s a desolation, and a bleak wit, about Martin McDonagh’s 1996 play that recalls Beckett. Even more overwhelmingly, there are distinct echoes of Synge. Yet for all McDonagh’s clear influences, the breathtaking savagery of his writing takes any reverent sense of cultural heritage, along with all misty-eyed, sentimental notions about Ireland and Irishness, and punches them in the throat. Michael Grandage’s production, featuring an enormously testing and significant role for Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe, is acted with terrific verve and is wickedly hilarious – even if it reminds you what a shamelessly manipulative dramatist McDonagh can be.
 
On the rugged, weatherworn Aran island of Inishmaan in 1934, orphaned, disabled teenager Billy Claven (Radcliffe) is late home to the ill-stocked, dilapidated shop owned by his two guardians, “aunties” Kate and Eileen Osbourne (wonderfully bilious and batty Ingrid Craigie and Gillian Hanna). Where can he be? Has he fallen down a hole? Got distracted by a cow? Well, whatever’s become of him, the hapless lad won’t be getting kissed – unless, his aunties opine, it’s by a “blind girl or a backward girl.” But if no one pays Billy much attention, he has dreams. He’s tenderly carrying a brightly burning torch for flame-haired Helen (Sarah Greene), a temperamental local girl with a penchant for hurling eggs at anyone who crosses or irks her. And when a film crew visits a neighbouring island for the making of the documentary Man of Aran, Billy hopes he might have a chance of stardom and escape to Hollywood.
 
McDonagh plays some pretty cheap narrative tricks on his audience, offering nuggets of suspect information, withholding others, pivoting his plot twists on untruths and ironies. But where he excels is in the grim domestic details and in his dialogue, which crackles and cackles with absurdity and brutal comedy. Billy, in a rare burst of malice, memorably castigates Johnnypateenmike (Pat Shortt), a mean-minded layabout who lives by charging a fee for passing on scraps of gossip. “You’re so boring you’d bore the head off a dead bee.” But that’s nothing to the excoriating squabbling between the small-town news trafficker and his ailing, elderly mother (June Watson), whom he is systematically and unapologetically trying to kill off with whiskey. Then there’s the circuitous sympathising and sniping between the embittered Osbourne sisters, whose solicitude for Billy is more than a little self-serving, and the robust blunt mouthiness of Helen, who reckons that if she’s pretty enough to get groped by the priest in choir practice, she should have no trouble at all making it in the movies.
 
The ensemble playing is terrific, though Greene is outstanding as the volatile Helen. As for Radcliffe, he’s a little too light to capture the grinding despair, cruel yearning and loneliness of Billy, who has never been sure about the truth behind his parents’ deaths. But, with his two painfully twisted limbs, he is touchingly vulnerable and poignantly amusing – and more than compelling enough to prove, once and for all, that his capabilities extend far beyond the portrayal of the boy wizard that made him famous. Grandage’s production, with its imposing seascapes, rugged seawall and cheerless, spartan interiors designed by Christopher Oram, offsets McDonagh’s merciless gallows humour with a tough, muscular poeticism – even if one important plot development isn’t delivered with quite enough clarity. It’s a striking picture of circumscribed lives, boldly drawn and brutally funny.

 


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