The Lieutenant of Inishmore – Noel Coward Theatre

Lieutenant of Inishmore - Noel Coward Theatre

2018 is becoming quite the year for Martin McDonagh; in January his last major play Hangmen opened in New York taking most of its original London cast, then in late February the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri won two Oscars, and in October his latest play A Very Very Dark Matter starring Jim Broadbent about Hans Christian Andersen heralds the Bridge Theatre’s autumn season. In the meantime, a beautifully pitched revival of McDonagh’s 2001 play The Lieutenant of Inishmore about a cat-loving terrorist in1990s Ireland is now playing at the Noel Coward Theatre and guaranteed to draw audiences with star Aidan Turner in the leading role.

With a exceptional version of Translations running at the National Theatre, and more Friel to come at the Donmar later this month with their revival of Aristocrats, London is enjoying a mini-Irish season. Across these plays, there is an examination of the changing relations between our two countries, as well as open-ended questions about nationality and language that have shaped both nations over hundreds of years. With Brexit drawing focus once again to the Northern Ireland boarder, this timely combination of plays have concurrent themes about identity formation, conflict and the future development of two countries whose history is inextricable entangled.

McDonagh has always been very astute in capturing the contrasting and multifaceted nature of the individual, delighting in the unexpected foibles and ridiculousness that bring humanity to some of his darkest creations. Often focused on the perpetrators of extreme violence, many of these characters are given an unexpected softer side, so whether its Brendan Gleeson’s hired assassin with a passion for the medieval architecture of Bruges, a former state executioner running a local pub or a cat-loving anarchist, extreme and almost surreal though it can be, within McDonagh’s work there is always a kernel of truth about human behaviour that lurks beneath the surface. However violent their career choices, there is always pride, attachments and fallibility that make them more rounded.

This also serves to emphasise the fate of the many innocents who get caught in the cross-fire, those who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, completely outside of the central plot and suffer as a result – be it children, neighbouring cats or racist dwarves. McDonagh’s scenarios have a warped moral dimension to them, ensuring that the bad people tend to pay for their crimes in outrageously violent ways, retaining a reasonably straightforward perspective on good and evil, punishment and justice.

As a very black comedy, The Lieutenant of Inishmore on the surface is essentially a tale of in-fighting between various subsets of a terrorist organisation, a disagreement about the etiquette and degrees of violence to be employed in pursuit of their cause. But the unspoken context here is the fraught aftermath of a colonial relationship between Britain and Ireland that has driven this group of men to seek destructive and murderous means to achieve liberty for the North. McDonagh takes a tongue-in-cheek approach but as each hilarious scene builds to a beautifully pitched comic conclusion, the contextual reality of this era, of the fragility of political peace processes, of generations of people driven to extremist behaviour remains striking.

Set on the Island of Inishmore off the coast of Ireland, teenager Davey delivers the corpse of Donny’s black cat which he found in the road with his head staved in. Unfortunately for Davey, the cat – Wee Thomas – really belongs to Donny’s son Padraic, a crazy and violent terrorist working for the INLA, who instantly breaks off the torture of a drug dealer to rush home to see the cat he adores. Teaming-up with Davey’s sister Mairead who enjoys shooting the eyes out of cattle and pursued by an assassination-squad of INLA colleagues, Padraic’s fury is enflamed by meagre attempts to substitute his beloved moggy for another. But, who really killed Wee Thomas and will anyone live to tell the tale?

There is a huge amount of technical skill involved in creating a show like this, one which mixes an implied menace with an almost cartoon-violence that is deliberately unrealistic enough to prevent the violence overwhelming the humour. There is a kind of joy in the build-up to some of the more extreme aspects of the show, which become darker as the plot unfolds, and Christopher Oram has done an impressive job with some slightly heightened but still ghastly-looking props, particularly in the glorious finale.

The penultimate scene too runs beautifully but is full of carefully timed stage-craft that is considerably more complicated than they make it look. It’s a high-stakes scene, probably the most fraught of the play as all the plot elements come together in a Tarantino-style face-off between the various characters. It’s rare to see something like this on stage because it’s so difficult to accomplish in real-time, but Oram’s team has delivered a series of splatters and explosions that can be triggered at exactly the right moment, and even more importantly, create just the right effect, at the right angle on the set and characters – a not insubstantial achievement.

Tone is equally hard to manage in a show like this, and it can be extremely difficult to make it just black enough without becoming too grim, while keeping the lighter stuff in check so that it doesn’t become too farcical – McDonagh wants you to see a touch of reality in his characters, to believe them capable of their extreme actions, but at the same time to chortle at their ludicrous sensitivities and grasp of morality. Director Michael Grandage has got this exactly right, allowing the story to build in the early scenes, enjoying the sillier moments, while still creating sufficient investment in the characters as we build to the more shocking plot devices.

At less than two hours with an unnecessary and distracting interval, the play has only nine scenes across which a full and engaging plot is presented and concluded. Grandage manages the transitions using the main stage for Donny’s farmhouse, and locating other scenes in front of a curtain, a papier mache and paint affair fashioned to look like the Island of Inishmore from the air. This all works very nicely, maintaining the flow while separating between the moments where characters are in transit from their more rooted and identifiable existence in Donny’s home. It is also hilarious, sometimes overt and silly, while at other times more subtle, with throw-away references or character-traits that add extra layers for those who want to see them.

With the stars of long-running and much-loved TV dramas, it’s (shamefully) all too easy to forget their range of skills and the diversity of their work elsewhere. As Ross Poldark, Aidan Turner became an overnight sensation which four series on shows no signs of abating, but the character offers only a limited outlet for his acting portfolio. With hints that the next season may be the last, this seems like an appropriate time for Turner’s return to the stage, to start thinking about life beyond the tricorn hats and slow-motion horse-riding, and to remind the acting world that he has plenty more to offer. His role in the superb BBC adaptation of And Then There Were None offered a charged and dangerous presence, while here in The Lieutenant of Inishmore he comprehensively proves he also has a talent for comedy.

As Padraic, Turner switches in an instant from violent fiend to cat-loving softie, frequently breaking down into tears even at the thought of any harm befalling his precious puss. His first appearance sets-up the rest of the show, as Padraic tortures a drug dealer suspended upside down from the ceiling, Turner elicits just the right balance of silliness in McDonagh’s text, landing a great line about selling drugs to Protestants and, when he hears of Wee Thomas’s illness, the slightly squeaky and tremulous way he asks to speak to his cat on the phone has the audience in stitches.

Turner’s Padraic is definitely a man with no regard for human life, happy to sacrifice his dad and neighbours for the cause, a man with a proclivity for blowing-up chip shops and an anarchic temper. Turner continually balances a growing menace with the heightened nature of the characterisations and scenario to emphasise the ridiculousness of Padraic’s extremes of hate and love (for cats). A final memory of Padraic winsomely stroking a dead cat while referencing 90s TV show The House of Eliot is an image that will stay with you. Turner is genuinely very funny with a shrewd comic timing and clearly enjoys the whole thing tremendously

Padraic’s dad, played by Denis Conway is wonderfully dry, offering an understated but sharp portrayal of man fearing the wrath of his crazy son but with no more interest in anyone’s life but his own. He plays the straight man in a hilarious double act with Chris Walley’s Davey, as the pair embroil themselves in a number of enjoyably daft schemes to hide Wee Thomas’s death from Padraic. Making his stage debut, Walley is given a terrible curly mullet, of which Davey is inordinately proud, and the actor holds his own very nicely in an impressive ensemble.

The only woman in the story, Charlie Murphy’s Mairead is a cold ruthless attacker of cow’s eyes which she shoots out for practice. A dedicated revolutionary, far braver than anyone else in the show, and proud of her skills as a crack shot from a decent distance, 16-year old Mairead is desperate to join the INLA and has an eye for her hero Padraic. Murphy brings a soldier’s composure to the role of the psychotic youngster with a casual approach to life and death, a cool logic that is both comical and terrifying. You’d never want to cross her but in a world of gun-toting men you also slightly root for her.

With McDonagh and Turner’s names attached to the project, there’ll be no concerns about selling tickets so critical support becomes less necessary, but with press night on Wednesday they’re sure to get it anyway. This version of The Lieutenant of Inishmore is an impressive technical accomplishment supported by very fine performances from the ensemble, that has plenty of layers to unpick. More than anything, it’s just a great shoot-em-up farce, a darkly comic treat with a black black heart. It may be a good year for Martin McDonagh, but with so much of his work available, it’s great for us too.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 8 September, and tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1           

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over 400 shows. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

7 responses to “The Lieutenant of Inishmore – Noel Coward Theatre

  • Aristocrats – Donmar Warehouse | Cultural Capital

    […] at The Bridge in early autumn. Until then, a top-notch revival of McDonagh’s black comic treat The Lieutenant of Inishmore is playing to packed houses at the Noel Coward with Aidan Turner no small draw, while equally […]

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    I hope you’re enjoying or enjoyed your holiday. Please don’t feel you have to respond promptly – or even to respond at all given the play closes in a few days. I finally got to see this and have made my usual report but I thought I’d read your review and, as usual, pick up on a few of the interesting points in it.

    “…open-ended questions about nationality and language…”

    I wondered if there was any significance in the fact that McDonagh has given Anglophone names to everyone except Padraig and Mairead. A little less seriously I wondered whether it was coincidence that the incompetent INLA officer was called Christy, like ‘the only playboy of the Western World’. J.M. Synge was condemned for, among other things, portraying Irish country folk as feckless simpletons and there are elements of this in The Lieutenant… (though there are probably too many ‘fecks’ in the play for the characters to be called feckless!).

    “the future development of two countries whose history is inextricable entangled…As a very black comedy… the unspoken context here is the fraught aftermath of a colonial relationship between Britain and Ireland”

    An interesting point. I hope my ellipses don’t make the quote too unrepresentative of your meaning but it brought me to some thoughts that entered my mind within fifteen minutes of the start: the comedy, though rather darker, is redolent of Father Ted – a piece written by Irishmen for the British market and then enthusiastically adopted by the Irish themselves. This kind of cross fertilisation is, surely, the positive aspect of the Anglo-Irish nexus. Given that the sitcom and the play were conceived within a year of each other and that the Isles of Aran are intimately associated with Father Ted (indeed Inishmore becomes Craggy Island for an annual Ted Fest) I had to wonder whether this was entirely coincidence.

    “More than anything, it’s just a great shoot-em-up farce, a darkly comic treat with a black black heart”

    It is indeed, fun and the pace is maintained throughout which made me inclined to overlook the fact that all but one of the characters (well, maybe two if you count Mairead) are not only cartoonish but underwritten. You’ll recall that I found this a fatal flaw in Home, I’m Darling. The difference, I think, is that action in The Lieutenant… is infinitely funnier and sharper. For an interesting comparison look out for any revival of Richard Bean’s The Big Fellah. This is also a dark (though not as broad) comedy dealing with an Irish Nationalist cell in New York from the 1970s to September 2001. I haven’t spotted a revival since I saw Finbar Lynch in the title role seven years ago but if one comes up I’d travel quite a long way to see it.

    • Maryam Philpott

      Hi John

      I’m really glad you got to see this before it finishes, and that there were some reasonably priced tickets still available.

      I like your reference to cross-fertilisation between different kinds of plays and television which I hadn’t really though about. There must be all kinds of examples across literature where characters or locations are named in homage to another writer, a subtle nod for the discerning audience member to spot.

      As you can tell from the review, I really enjoyed this production which got the tone just right, which, as you point out, means you can overlook some of the more cartoonish aspects. With all the thinking and reflecting we do on serious theatre, sometimes its lovely to see something that’s completely daft and a great night out!

      I’m back from holiday now so more than happy to respond, and about to launch into a good run of autumn shows!

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    Good to read that you enjoyed your break. I must stop dithering and book some time away myself doing something other than going to the theatre or concert hall.

    “…got the tone just right, which, as you point out, means you can overlook some of the more cartoonish aspects…”

    Good comic writing, direction and acting can indeed make you overlook almost any weakness. Young Frankenstein was a good example. It had almost nothing going for it dramatically – and I don’t even like that genre of music – but it was huge fun all the same. On a more profound level, recently we’ve had The One and The Lieutenant…; both extremely dark, wickedly funny and with very serious underlying themes, both very well written and acted and both, in my opinion at least, resounding successes. We also had Pity – which aimed at dark comedy, could, indeed, have been the darkest and arguably had the most serious underlying themes of all; but was such a mess that it didn’t succeed on any level.

    I just grabbed front row £15 seats for the Pinter for this Friday and for 26 Sep. I now have to arrange the journeys but the prices were so irresistible that I had to buy first and worry about logistics later. Cheap advance front row seats at the HPT are a bit of a rarity. I don’t remember seeing them when I looked a few weeks ago. Maybe I didn’t look properly, expecting cheap seats (other than day seats) to be just in the gallery – or maybe sales weren’t going so well and they had to give them a boost.

    • Maryam Philpott

      Hi John

      Yes it has been an interesting time for dark comedy, which is so difficult to get right. Comedy in general is much harder than it looks and I want to reiterate what I said in the review about how impressive the technical team were in this show. To be able to provide those effects live every night in a very filmic way is incredibly complex, and their skill has been to make it look effortless.

      I too have a double dose of Pinter ahead so we’ll be able to discuss that next week!

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    “how impressive the technical team were in this show. To be able to provide those effects live every night in a very filmic way is incredibly complex, and their skill has been to make it look effortless”.

    I don’t really have a handle on how difficult these things are but they certainly worked here. I can understand why you hated Pity even more than I did because the props and effects there looked like they’d been done by the 4th Form Woodwork and Handicrafts department. On the other hand there are cases (The Red Barn, Network) where even while I’m wondering ‘how do they do that?’ I’m also thinking ‘why would they want to emulate screen presentation so faithfully when we can just, you know, watch a film?’. I didn’t think the effects in The Lieutenant…were particularly filmic as such; but I agree that they were very effective. The fact that I didn’t really notice does rather suggest they succeeded in making it seem effortless.

    “I too have a double dose of Pinter ahead so we’ll be able to discuss that next week!”

    I only have a single dose in the next week. I’ll be avoiding reviews of The Lover & The Collection until after Sep 26. I already have Alan Badel, Vivien Merchant, Malcolm McDowell, Laurence Olivier (good to see Harry Kane back after the World Cup!), Alan Bates and Helen Mirren in my mind from TV productions. I don’t need critics’ opinions further interfering with my reception. I will, of course, be delighted to discuss ‘Pinter One’ next week.

    • Maryam Philpott

      Hi John

      I didn’t mean the play itself was cinematic, just that the visual effects they use particularly in the scene just before the interval (no spoilers!) is much easier to do on screen where you can stop and start the camera until you achieve the effect you desire and then just cut it all together to make it look like continuous action.

      To deliver multiple effects live on stage, timed to perfection is incredibly impressive, extremely difficult and we don’t see it very often.

      Looking forward to our Pinter One discussion next week.

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