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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Old Vic


  Robert Sheehan and Ruth Negga/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

It famously caused riots when it opened at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1907, and over 100 years later, there’s still something startlingly grotesque about JM Synge’s comedy – though of course, unlike those early 20th-century audiences outraged by the use of the word "shift," we’re not shocked by the play's references to female undergarments nowadays. Rather, it’s the absurd glorification of violence, the rural small-town spite and vengefulness, and the topsy-turvy morality of a community in which superstition and Catholicism are kissing cousins that set the hair on end and the laughter freezing in the throat.
The play was seminal; Synge’s influence can be felt in the work of Irish dramatists from O’Casey and Behan right through to McDonagh, not to mention Mustapha Matura’s Caribbean version, Playboy of the West Indies. This production by John Crowley is a fine rendering of a landmark work; acted with terrific verve, it has both a bilious wit and a devilish glee.
From the washing strung, in Scott Pask’s design, across the stone walls of the Flahertys’ County Mayo public house where Flaherty’s daughter, feisty Pegeen Mike (Ruth Negga), is barmaid, to the luring grey skies, the staging is richly atmospheric. Crowley opens each half of the evening with a salty ballad, performed to the accompaniment of bodhran, accordion and penny whistle, by a chorus of raddled Irish mammies and bright-eyed cailins (portrayed by performers of both genders).
Into Pegeen Mike’s dour domain limps young Christy Mahon (gangling, lopsided, pallid and curly topped Robert Sheehan), fleeing the family farm where he claims he murdered his abusive father. Far from being horrified, the locals swoon over the young man’s ornately expressed story; he is lionised as a hero, a poet, and by all the young women of the district as an object of sexual desire. 
Sharp-tongued Pegeen Mike’s head is turned away from her craven and unexciting, if relatively well-to-do suitor Shawn Keogh (a plumply tremulous Kevin Trainor), as wily Niamh Cusack’s tough, shrewd and sensual Widow Quin declares, “There’s great temptation in a lad did kill his da.” Pegeen Mike swiftly appoints the newcomer as the pub’s potman; but when his supposedly deceased parent appears in bloody bandages and a black rage, Christy’s glamorous new identity is called into question – and his erstwhile admirers don’t take at all kindly to being taken for fools.
The play offers a sharp critique of Celtic romanticism and desolate lives of material and emotional impoverishment, steeped in benighted myth and gossip. Witchy rumours abound about Widow Quin, including a story about her suckling a black ram at her own breast; and rousing a lynch mob to mete out rough justice proves a disturbingly easy matter. Crowley allows us to relish the dark comedy in performances that are crammed with colour and foible; but the nasty realities of existence scarred by privation, famine and political unrest are always lurking in the murky shadows and cobwebbed corners. It’s terrific fun – but, satisfyingly, it’s decidedly unsettling, too.


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