Possibly owing to his recent Oscar-winning film turn with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin McDonagh is extremely in vogue. Even in humble St Andrews, this is his second outing in six months – you can read my review of The Pillowman here. It is a slightly odd trend, as his bizarre, wordy scripts are not immediately accessible or particularly nice viewing. However, Isi Webb-Jenkins’ latest production in The StAge, which rounded off Mermaids’ offerings for On the Rocks this year, managed to keep the audience hooked through almost three hours of dense dark comedy.
The decision to have a live band perform Irish music during scene changes and in the interval was a fantastic one, and I have rarely seen the space in the Stage put to such good use. Amanda McAphee and her team’s set design was simple but elegant, with a shop counter upstage and a stony beach downstage. It is unfortunate that there remained a 10-feet void between the action and the front row, and I know that some members of the audience had trouble making out the words – but from my seat in the second row I felt truly transported to the remote island of Inishmaan.
The play’s content is fascinating, dealing with the true story of an American film crew who in 19 34 came to make a documentary in rural Ireland. The story of “Cripple Billy”, played fantastically pathetically by Toby Poole, who wants to join the film crew to become an actor, is heart-breaking and nihilistically funny. Surrounded by an ensemble of grotesque characters, Poole remained a reliably-genuine presence, especially in delivering a particularly moving solo scene. His disability was neither over- nor underdone, and it seemed with genuine regretful pain that he limped around the stage. Similarly, although I can be no judge, most of the Irish accents (mostly false or exaggerated, I assume) were passable.
However, Billy’s solo scene, like many of the play’s genuine moments, are revealed by the script to be inherently false or based upon a lie. Director Webb-Jenkins dealt with this incongruity well: moments of real pathos were treated with as much sincerity as the morbid, often discriminatory jokes which would follow. I was inclined at times to feel like the audience were somewhat missing the point – the decidedly white-haired crowd seemed to take great pleasure in laughing at the characters’ tasteless jokes about the unfortunate “cripple”. The fact that this made me uncomfortable is testament to the success of McDonagh’s script and the show’s convincingness. I’m sure this is exactly what Webb-Jenkins had in mind.
The stars of the gothic-attired cast were Billy’s “aunties”, played excellently by Megan Rough and Sophia Anderson. With stripes of white in their hair and gaits to indicate years of hard labour in fierce Irish weather, their timing was never off, and their scenes alone together were some of the highlights of the play. A pair of brawling siblings played by Eilidh McKinnon and Tom Caruth were well-suited for the comic effect they were to provide.
However, the nicest moments of the play were when nothing happened at all – at one point, everyone gathers together to watch the completed film. Staring into the audience, repeating nonsense, meaningless lines that we had heard many times before, Webb-Jenkins clearly captured the essence of McDonagh’s writing. People’s small acts of cruelty against one another for no good reason other than boredom and human fallibility were the main business of these shallow, gruesome performances. To have tried to achieve anything deeper would have been pointless.
Although the subject material and length would definitely not appeal to everyone, overall this show achieved exactly what it set out to do and should be lauded for that.
STARS: * * * *