THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN
Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 1st March, 2019
Martin McDonagh is one of the finest stage- and screenwriters currently working. This production of his play from 1996 clearly demonstrates his use of Irish settings, idioms and characters, mining the same comedic vein as Father Ted and Stones in His Pockets. On the craggy island of the title, news comes of a Hollywood film crew on a neighbouring island, seeking locals to appear on celluloid. It’s big news for a community used to hearing word of geese and cats and sheep with no ears. ‘Cripple Billy’ is especially keen, forging a letter from the doctor in order to cajole a boatman to take him across the sea…
As the action unfolds against the backdrop of a gorgeous set by Chris Jackson and Martin Tottle, we meet a host of colourful characters. Seemingly hostile to each other, if the insults they hurl at each other and their coarse language is anything to go by, the community has been keeping a secret from Billy his entire life. It seems the worse they say to each other, the more they care.
We meet Eileen (Niki Baldwin) and Kate Osbourne (Viv Tomlinson), Billy’s adoptive aunties, who run a ramshackle shop that appears to stock little else but tins of peas. Baldwin and Tomlinson are a fine double act, gossiping about local affairs, but also as characters in their own right, each handling stress in their own way: the one stuffing herself with sweets, the other talking to stones. Paul Tomlinson’s Johnnypateenmike O’Dougal is a superb piece of character acting among an excellent cast. Sophie Mobberley’s Slippy Helen is fierce and feisty, oozing violence and sociopathy, while Thomas Hodge as Helen’s brother Bartley is convincingly simple, his one-track mind fixated on telescopes. Graham Buckingham Underhill makes a strong impression as boatman Babbybobby Bennett. Dorothy Barlow gives an hilarious turn as Mammy O’Dougal, and there is credible support from David Derrington as Doctor McSharry.
The accents ring true, never veering into ‘Oirish’ parody, diddle-de-dee, and director Vanessa Comer gets the overall tone and pacing just right. It’s a genuine pleasure to see this consistently funny piece presented so excellently. It’s a play about community and fake news, gossip, rumour and the truth. While we enjoy the shenanigans of the community, our sympathies hinge on the central performance by Nathan Brown as Billy. Today we would never address a person with disabilities so bluntly, and it’s not just a matter of political correctness making us mealy-mouthed. McDonagh shows us that the disabled have hopes and dreams of their own and a desire to be loved just like anyone else, and they make mistakes just like everyone else. Brown arouses our compassion for Billy’s predicament rather than his condition. The truth emerges about Billy’s past and his current tuberculosis diagnosis, packing a poignant punch. It’s superbly done.
Thoroughly entertaining, this black comedy is a joy from start to finish. As one of the characters observes, we know we shouldn’t be laughing, but we do. It’s one of the best productions I’ve seen at the Bear Pit – and that’s saying something!