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Playwright Martin McDonagh’s corrosive black comedy The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which debuted in 2001 and then five years later landed on Broadway, finds itself in as fine a fettle as you could wish for with this Michael Grandage-directed revival at London’s Noel Coward Theatre.
This second part in the playwright’s Aran Islands trilogy — sandwiched between The Cripple of Inishmaan and The Banshees of Inisheer — is a brutally ebullient farce that gleefully features several gory onstage murders. There are also dismembered bodies, nonstop cursing, self-consciously callous wisecracks about terrorism and its victims and -— perhaps most controversially for some viewers — dead cats, all in service of a text first drafted in the early 1990s that has held up exceedingly well.
A more tidily constructed work than Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the controversial film dramedy of last year which McDonagh also directed, Lieutenant, along with the more recent Hangmen, finds the writer on home ground at his most scurrilous and Joe Orton-esque, funniest when he’s sticking the knife in deep.
Audiences lured to the show on the strength of the casting and marketing alone may be in for a shock. The marquee poster features hunky star Aidan Turner, best known for his title role in the TV revival of Poldark, wearing a white singlet all the better to show off his sculpted biceps and cuddling an adorable (living) black pussycat. As it happens, his character in the show, Padraic, spends most of the final scene cradling a dead black cat (a reassuringly fake-looking prop), the MacGuffin that gets the whole shebang rolling in the first place. Turner is well chosen, bringing to the role not just comely good lucks but also crisp comic timing and confident skill at projection.
It’s the discovery of that dead moggy, Wee Thomas, that sets Padraic’s father, Donny (Denis Conway), worrying about how his ailurophile son will react after the numbskull neighbor boy Davey (Chris Walley, a comic treasure) finds the creature on the road. This being the early 1990s, Padraic has gone to ply his trade in Belfast just when the first ceasefire between the British and the paramilitaries had been established.
A locally well-known psychopath using his gift for killing in the service of a sectarian splinter group, the INLA, Padraic is first met torturing hapless drug dealer James (Brian Martin) for selling marijuana to college students, or “the schoolchildren of Ireland,” as Padraic insists on calling them. When Donny rings to report that Wee Thomas is “poorly,” hoping to release the bad news in manageable bites, Padraic is distraught enough to abandon his work extracting toenails and cutting off James’ nipples to get on a boat straight back to the Aran isles in County Galway to check up on the cat’s health. Once there, the scenes alternate between encounters that unfold against a flat with a 3D view of the island, and the interior of Donny’s scruffy farmhouse.
Director Grandage’s revival of The Cripple of Inishmaan with Daniel Radcliffe was well-received both in London and on Broadway. It’s no surprise that he draws out the musicality of the dialogue here. He recently directed Frozen on Broadway as well as many acclaimed musical revivals in the U.K., including Olivier Award-winning productions of Guys and Dolls and Grand Hotel.
McDonagh is often at his best with quickfire banter, screwball comedy with a screw loose, and in the hands and mouths of Conway and Walley, the pair’s dialogue exchanges really sing. Likewise the trio of Will Irvine, Julian Moore-Cook and Daryl McCormack, a bickering band from the INLA who have come to punish Padraic for daring to contemplate splintering the splinter group further. They deliver backchat about cat-killing and which quotes should or shouldn’t be attributed to Marx with the precision of a punk band, punching every beat with gusto.
However, in the grand tradition of commedia dell’arte and sitcoms galore, these ancillary characters are essentially support for the main romance plot, here between Padraic and camo-clad Mairead (Charlie Murphy), a mere slip of a girl with a deadly aim and fierce devotion to the Republican cause. Her most notorious achievement on the island was blinding a herd of cows, supposedly as a protest against the meat industry. Murphy plays the character as a suitably humorless waif, a fair match in zealotry, dumb cunning and cat-fancying sentimentality for the swaggering Padraic. The two don’t have particularly strong physical chemistry, but they look good together onstage.
Back in 2001, when the show first opened, Lieutenant was considered by some a little too close to the bone, especially when, post-9/11, it just wasn’t cool to laugh at terrorists and terrorism. (One of the funniest lines pertains to plans to draw up a list of valid targets, from one to 20, “like Top of the Pops.”) Although terrorism is no less of a threat now, especially in London, the Troubles seem almost quaintly historic when framed in the rearview mirror of history. That possibly takes something away from this play, depriving it of an urgency, which Grandage distracts from by upping the farcical energy. That faintly hollow feel is the one duff note in an otherwise pitch-perfect production.
Venue: Noel Coward Theatre, London
Cast: Chris Walley, Denis Conway, Aidan Turner, Brian Martin, Charlie Murphy, Will Irvine, Julian Moore-Cook, Daryl McCormack, Jet, Lenny
Playwright: Martin McDonagh
Director: Michael Grandage
Set and costume designer: Christopher Oram
Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Music and sound designer: Adam Cork
Presented by MGC
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