The Cripple of Inishmaan

by Martin McDonagh; dir Craig Shelton
Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry
12 – 19 May 2012

On the surface, The Cripple of Inishmaan tells the story of young Cripple Billy and his doomed attempt to ‘make it’ in Hollywood. That would be an unfair summation of the play however: we only once leave the small village that Billy grew up in, most of the story is told through the other characters of the village, and the Hollywood story doesn’t matter very much at all. But we do empathise with Billy and his struggle to escape the forlorn pigeon-hole he has been placed in. In a scene just before his departure, he asks BabbyBobby to call him just Billy instead of Cripple Billy, much to the Bobby’s confusion.

The play has a certain similarity to Dylan Thomas’ ‘Under Milk Wood’ in that the richness comes from observation of the peculiar characters in the village and their interactions with each other. Most of this is done to great comic effect, although there is pain and tragedy there too – an addition that makes the people more real than a non-stop gag-fest would do. Martin McDonagh has written an excellent play here.

And it was presented and performed well too. The opening scene, with Kate (Debra Relton-Elves) and Eileen (Annie Gay) in their village shop delightfully set the tone and it would be a cold person indeed who did not find much to laugh at in that scene. Here we first hear of Billy’s habit of staring at cows – a recurring theme. Elliot Relton-Williams handled the part of Billy excellently, allowing us to feel and root for him in the way we must if the play is to be successful, and the consistency with which he played his crippled leg and arm is fantastic in one so young. Jon Elves also impressed as grim and ultimately violent Bobby and Peter Gillam as the doctor calmly maintained his serious demeanour despite such things as explaining to Billy that his mother was ugly enough to frighten a pig. For me though, the best of a good bunch were Pete Bagley as JohnnyPateen, the town gossip (or news reporter as he’d have it) and Annie Woodward as the mother he is trying to kill with drink (with her full cooperation) – and what a great pairing they made.

Not quite as polished as it could be though; despite a mostly good performance as young Bartley, with his fascination for telescopes and sweets, Sam Taylor seemed to have concentrated on getting the Irish accent right at the expense of his diction. As such, the second scene was very difficult to understand and took some wind out of the sails – it didn’t help that much of the conversation was about sweets with unfamiliar names. Lucy Hayton as his egg-throwing sister had similarly problems at times. This improved as time went on and either they relaxed more or we became more acclimatised – or because sweets didn’t feature as much.

Overall an excellent night out.

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Present Laughter

by Noel Coward; dir Dixie Atkins
Priory Theatre, Kenilworth
2 – 12 May 2012

Present Laughter is one of Noel Coward’s most popular plays and its main character, Gary Essendine, an actor with a melodramatic temperament, was said by the author to be a parody of himself.

As such, the performance of James King in that role was somewhat disappointing. Coward’s comedy characters tend to be more stereotypes than realistic and I had expected some flamboyance, campness, near-swoons – fitting the lines spoken. Instead I found a peculiar gruffness, almost as though the ‘maleness’ of the character should never be uncertain. On the positive side, James did put some effort into the spoilt behaviour and near-tantrums that are also a part of Gary’s character, but without the core being right it wasn’t enough. I focus on this point simple because this is one of those plays dominated by the central character and if that is not done right, it’s very hard to make the play work whatever the rest of the cast does.

At the other end of the scale, Mike Brooks’ performance as uber-fan Roland Maule was perhaps a little too over-the-top in comparison; it served to remind us that the balance was out somewhere. With a stronger performer of Gary, Roland may have fitted better.

Lest we drown in negativity, I should mention some positive points. For me, those who had got their parts down to a tee were Juliet Grundy as Gary’s all-knowing wife, Liz, Rebecca Gardner-Tildesley who opened the show marvellously as the jittery Daphne, and Coralie Hammond as the brusque and always-smoking housekeeper, Miss Erikson.

Altogether a bit pedestrian and unbalanced – with some better moments when the right people were on stage.

Dancing at Lughnasa

by Brian Friel; dirAnn Brooks
Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth
23 – 28 April 2012

Dancing at Lughnasa (pron. Loonasa) is a touching story of Irish country life in the 1930s that alternates between narration and action. The narration is conducted by Michael as a grown man reminiscing about the small house in which he lived with his mother and four aunts. The rest of the time the action takes place on the set – a representation of that house. In these scenes, the seven-year-old Michael’s presence is mimed by the others and his words are spoken by the adult Michael from his position at the side.

The five sisters have a poor but contented lifestyle, and during the story this is interrupted by two men. One is old Uncle Jack, returned from many years of being a missionary in Uganda and finding it hard to adapt to life back at home. The other is Michael’s lively but unreliable father, Gerry, who occasionally visits, proposes to Michael’s mother, makes various promises and then departs to pursue his latest scheme for money or glory.

The overall feel is of the warmth that memory can bring as it glosses over hardships, and a longing a lost past. The five sisters act as an ensemble with varying degrees of success, but are overall adequate and occasionally excellent. The two sisters who stood out were Sarah Campbell as eldest sister Kate, convincingly carrying their world on her shoulders at times, and Emily Tuff as the irrepressible Maggie. Andrew Bayliss played Michael skilfully, but I felt that his style was a little harsh and jarred somewhat with the warmth of the scenes, which were after all meant to be his memories.

But the story would not move along without the two visitors. Gerry was reasonably well played by Tom Garner, who had charisma and energy but lacked some naturalism. Jack was played by experienced hand John Fenner and it showed. His fond memories of his time in Uganda and the tribal gatherings and rituals he took part in were really captivating and delivered with a pleasant innocence, oblivious to the scandalising effect this was having on the Catholic sensibilities of the sisters, particularly Kate.

A pleasant evening out, but with a little more polish it could have been a must-see.