The Playboy Of The Western World, Theatre Review, Lyric Theatre, Belfast, October 9th, 2019
By Conor O’Neill
730ish, Belfast’s Lyric Theatre’s mainstage. Before us sits a bar, an old Irish type affair where porter and whiskey is drunk; fancy gins or Bordeaux are not to be found here. Set originally in the first few years of the 20th century, writer J.M Synge placed the play in rural Mayo with its isolation from Dublin. In this co-production by the Lyric Theatre and Dublin Theatre Festival, director Oonagh Murphy transplants Flaherty’s to an unspecified border town adding such a location’s ongoing and increasing tensions to the mix in this modern take.
This tired and failing town sees the old drink themselves to death and the young trapped and with an equally glum future. That is until a stranger comes through their door, ‘skinny like a Wicklow sheep’ states Pegeen Mike (Eloïse Stevenson), daughter of the bar’s owner. Her betrothed Shawn Keogh (Tony Flynn) is shy and tepid, frightened to go to Kate Cassidy’s wake due to Father Riley’s likelihood of being there.
Not as frightened as the stranger who gives his name as Christy Mahon (Michael Shea) running from a crime ‘worse than larceny’. The intrigued bar’s regulars throw every conceivable crime his way, farmers Philly Cullen (Jo Donnelly) and Jimmy Farrell (Tony Flynn) run through the gambit of crimes worse than theft. The horses? Too many women? No, ‘I hit him on the head and buried him’ confesses the young Mahon.
The righteous killing of his cruel father sees Christy elevated from stranger to pot-boy and as the play progresses to something of a local celebrity and quite a catch for the local women to claim.
Pegeen’s admiration is obvious, not just to the audience but to her clam-handed husband-to-be.
Fearing the wrath of a murderer, Shawn turns to Widow Quin (Aoibhѐann McCann) who boasts ‘there isn’t a match in the county for poteen or shearing sheep’. McCann in denim and black leather jacket is quite the force of nature. More potent for sure than any of the town’s menfolk. From early it is clear that the women are in charge by proxy.
Publican Michael James Flaherty (Charlie Bonner) as his ruddy complexion suggests, spends more time drinking than serving porter. Shawn’s ineptitude is highlighted by Pegeen’s forceful imagination and lust for life beyond the town’s horizon. Even farmers Cullen and Farrell seem limp compared to the town’s three teenage upstarts, Holly Hannaway (Susan Brady), Honor Blake (Hazel Clifford) and Sara Tansey (Megan McDonnell).
The three are something of a tool to Widow Quin’s attempts to first woo then destroy Christy.
A second newcomer to town casts doubt on Christy’s new found glory. If farce was the currency of the first hour and ten minutes, after the interval farce meets venom as Mahon Senior (Frankie McCafferty) who survived the blow, sets to destroy the idiot he knew from birth or bring him home.
The set and wardrobe designed by Molly O’Cathain sees few changes and those that are made are only when the script demands. One addition has been made, that of a bedroom for Pegeen, which also serves as a hiding place for Christy and his ever changing role in the town. Again lighting and sound, courtesy of Amy Mae and Jane Deasy respectively, are kept to a minimum but with maximum impact when needed.
J.M Synge’s words, beautifully delivered are the stars of this production. Each and every character gets a share of lyrical verse with Widow Quin, Pegeen and, of course, Christy getting the lions’ portion.
If there’s one gripe – and it’s a small one – so well delivered were the actors’ lines and the accents so close to what I imagine Synge heard on his many trips to the west coast, that if a fellow audience member as much as coughed or tried inconspicuously to open a bottle of water, those few seconds were lost.
Charming and evocative theatre, superbly delivered, designed and thought through.
To think this plays caused riots on its opening in Dublin; tonight an appreciative full-house called the cast out a second time and applauded.
To book tickets visit http://www.lyrictheatre.co.uk or call the box office on 02890 381081
Matinees are on Saturdays and Sundays, a school performance is on October 17th and an audio described performance is on October 31st.
The Playboy Of The Western World runs until and including November 2nd.