THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE
Noel Coward Theatre, London, Saturday 14th July, 2018
This revival of Martin McDonagh’s 1993 play is a showcase for the Oscar-winning writer’s talent and also for leading man Aidan Turner – Ross Poldark himself. Fans of Poldark flocking to the Noel Coward theatre to be in the presence of the handsome hunk will find very different fare on offer. The setting is a rustic dwelling (hardly Nampara) in the Irish countryside – instead of Cornish vistas, there is a stylised representation of greenery, a tree that seems almost topographical, painted on a curtain. Rivalries, betrayals, violence… All of these are heightened for comic effect, and this is a very funny play indeed. Less Poldark and more Quentin Tarantino does Father Ted or Sam Peckinpah tackling Mrs Brown’s Boys. The humour is blacker than a pint of Guinness.
The killing of a cat is the trigger for the action. The puss in question belongs to wild-eyed Padraic (Turner) a freedom-fighter and vigilante, who interrupts his torture of a hapless drug pusher (Brian Martin) to receive news of ‘Wee Thomas’s’ welfare – and it is in these moments we see the character in all his madness, from his matter-of-fact sadism to the sentimental depth of his attachment to his only friend. Turner is screamingly funny, and while his bloodied white singlet shows off his well-turned arms and shoulders, the character is much to monstrous to be attractive and swoon-worthy. Turner has a credible intensity to his fanaticism; volatile and yet pragmatic, his Padraic is as scary as he is funny.
The rest of the cast are equally good. McDonagh doles out the funny lines even-handedly, and each character is touched with a particular madness of his or her own. Padraic’s dad, Donny (Denis Conway) to whom the care of the cat is entrusted while Padraic is off trying to bomb chip shops, has his otherwise better judgment skewed by drink; young Davey (Chris Walley) a mulleted Motorhead fan who rides a pink bicycle, is the scapegoat for the cat’s demise, gifted with his own brand of logic, founded in idiocy. The imposing and sinister Christy (Will Irvine) out for vengeance for the eye he lost to Padraic’s crossbow, accompanied by henchmen Joey and Brendan (Julian Moore-Clark and Daryl McCormack) have some darkly funny exchanges – it is Irvine who exudes the most menace, despite our gleeful horror at Padraic’s excesses. Charlie Murphy’s boyish, cow-blinding Mairead shows how deep the madness infects the population, where adherence to a cause overrides sanity. She and Padraic seem to share a moral code, centred on a mutual love of cats, and so it is not surprising when they form an alliance.
Christopher Oram’s cosy cottage set throws the decidedly un-cosy conduct of the characters into stark relief. The gore and violence of the faction are at odds with the chintzy diddly-diddly-dee of Oirish country life. Director Michael Grandage balances tension with the comedy, ensuring his cast deliver McDonagh’s relentless punchlines with exquisite timing, wringing the laughter from the audience, along with the shocks and the schlock as the action escalates.
Post-peace process, the play is perhaps now a warning of what Ireland could become again, when the lunacy of Brexit kicks in. More generally, it’s a stark demonstration of the kind of things people will kill and be killed for, with the unlucky black cat as a metaphor for what drives the murderous pursuits of the misguided. Violence is an answer, the play says, but it’s the wrong answer.
An exhilarating production of one of the funniest plays I’ve seen in a long time. Hail, McDonagh! Hail, Turner! Hail bullets… well, perhaps not that last one.