It’s 1934, and on the Irish island of Inishmaan, time moves slowly. The bored residents, while waiting for reality TV to be invented, make their own entertainment. Aunt Eileen and Aunt Kate arrange identical tins of peas in their dismal brown shop and bicker with one another. Scornful, red-haired beauty Helen slaps away groping hands and fires expletives at her dopey younger brother. Garrulous gossip JohnnyPateenMike, his filthy waistcoat shiny with grease, peddles rumours and applies himself energetically to killing off his ancient mother with poteen. And they all mock young orphan Cripple Billy – so called because of his congenital disabilities – to the point where contemplating stationary cows no longer offers him relief. When Billy – Daniel Radcliffe, giving a fine and touching performance – learns that there is a film crew on the neighbouring island, he determines to make his escape.
Martin McDonagh’s pitch-black, politically incorrect 1997 comedy is played with tremendous relish in Michael Grandage’s richly comic revival. McDonagh’s theme is the representation of Ireland, as he plays off the supposed accuracy of the film documentary (inspired by real-life Man of Aran) against multiple romantic myths and stereotypes. His pastiche rural drama most clearly references Synge, but there are flecks of Beckett too, in the squabbling double acts.
It’s written with verbal brio and gleefully scant regard for sensitivities, and the cast tackle it with gusto. Pat Shortt is a joy as JohnnyPateenMike, his eyes glistening at the scent of a scandal, and the scenes between him and his baleful old mammy (June Watson) are wickedly funny. Ingrid Craigie and Gillian Hanna make another lovely double act as the fusspot old aunts and Sarah Greene and Conor MacNeill a third as the breathtakingly foul-mouthed Helen and her sweet-toothed brother Bartley. And Radcliffe is the show’s quiet centre. As Billy he suggests both vulnerability and steely resolve, and demonstrates that, despite his physical infirmities, he is sounder in heart and mind than any of his fellow villagers.
But for all its virtuosity, this is a play to admire more than like. Its style gradually becomes self-limiting and predictable, and it starts to feel repetitive and hollow, so that even multiple plot-twists can’t stop it running out of steam. It does have a heart – showing the crippling effect of a harsh life on the villagers’ hopes – but, as with the characters, it is concealed behind such a brittle façade that it is hard to reach.