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Posts Tagged ‘Martin McDonagh’

In Martin McDonagh’s 2003 play The Pillowman there is a character who writes stories in the style of the Brothers Grimm featuring violence on children that seem to mirror recent child murders. His latest play concerns Hans Christian Andersen, the writer of somewhat lighter tales, and our own Charles Dickens, but it is very very very dark nonetheless, though I’m not sure what the point is.

We learn that Andersen is rather full of himself, but also rather sinister, imprisoning an African pygmy woman he calls Marjory who seems to be the source of his tales. He visits the Dickens family in England, who appear to have a pygmy of their own, Marjory’s sister Ogechi, and outstays his welcome. There are a lot of puzzling references to the death of millions in the Congo, Marjorie’s homeland, at the hands of the Belgians, in the name of rubber, with a lot of Belgian jokes and a pair of red Belgian thugs. Hans fondness for a young man and for children generally are hinted at, both he and Dickens are racists and their expletive laden dialogue jarred with the period. It has some darkly funny moments, but also disturbing ones, a lot of uncomfortable ones and quite a few boring ones too. The narrator is Tom Waits no less (recorded, not live!).

To be honest, I think an unknown playwright would have either had it rejected, or been sent home to rewrite and improve it, but it’s McDonagh, so it gets a high profile production on a major stage and it becomes his eight play seen in London and his first flop. Anna Fleishle’s design and an auspicious stage debut from Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles as Marjory are to be admired, but otherwise I’m afraid I felt it fell flat. It seemed to me like a half-baked attempt to shock, pointlessly, and it’s not a patch on his other seven plays.

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Martin McDonagh has cornered the market in dark comedies; his next play is actually called A Very Very Very Dark Matter. We don’t know how dark that will be but, at least until then, this is the darkest of the seven I’ve seen. It’s the second in an unfinished trilogy, and I don’t think it’s been in London since its premiere 17 years ago, though we did see the first in the trilogy, The Cripple of Inishmaan, by the same company five years ago. That’s long enough for me to have forgotten much of it’s twists and turns, to be shocked, horrified and thrilled by it all over again.

Irish republican terrorist Padraic is too violent for the IRA and fast becoming unacceptable to the INLA too, but he’s very fond of his cat Wee Thomas, so much so that he aborts a torturing to return home when he hears the cat is poorly. Back home his dad Donny and neighbour Davey concoct an elaborate but clumsy plot to cover up Wee Thomas’ death, whilst his true killers, an INLA splinter group led by Christy, plan to put an end to Padraic. Davey’s sister Mairead has her heart set on both a terrorist career and Padraic’s affections.

I’d forgotten how violent and gory it gets, and the twists and turns that drive the black comedy forward. You find yourself turning your head from the violence whilst laughing uproariously at the absurdities. It’s a brave man who satirises terrorism, particularly in the early 90’s, but in the end, in McDonagh’s own words, it’s ‘a violent play that is wholeheartedly anti-violence’ and there’s no-one else who can combine satire with black comedy with ultraviolence, as Anthony Burgess named it.

It’s clear that much of the audience is there to see Aidan Turner, who is excellent, and if that fills a West End theatre for quality drama, that’s OK by me. Hopefully, it won’t detract from seven other fine performances, chief amongst them the auspicious professional stage debut of Chris Walley, who has already wowed me in both the TV series’ and film of The Young Offenders. With Denis Conway terrific as his partner-in-crime Donny, they make a great double-act. You struggle to accept Charlie Murphy’s Mairead as a sixteen-year-old (as you do Turner as twenty) but it’s a fine performance nonetheless. A largely Irish cast bring an authenticity to the piece.

I liked designer Christopher Oram’s cottage, but I wasn’t sure about the idea of scene’s in front of his frontispiece. The blood splattering effects in Michael Grandage’s production were superb. I’m not sure the insertion of an interval, no doubt to boost bar profits for DMT, helped, but it didn’t hinder as much as I thought it might. A fine revival which has whetted my appetite for his new play in October.

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In the seven years between 1996 and 2003 we had six Martin McDonagh plays, then nothing for twelve years until this. Well, the McDonagh famine is over and his distinctive quirky black comedy voice is to be heard again at the Royal Court in what might be his best play to date, and the best new play at the Court for some time.

This is the first of his plays to be set in England rather than Ireland. It’s the early 60’s, capital punishment is being abolished and Britain’s hangmen take up new careers. Former hangman Harry, his wife April and daughter Shirley run a typical Northern boozer, whose regulars include Police Inspector Fry and a group of hardened drinkers who are in awe of Harry’s infamy. He decides to tell his story to a local cub reporter and the published article is unkind to his rival Pierrepoint, who pays him a visit later in the play. His ex assistant Syd, a mousy somewhat passive character, is intent on taking Harry down a peg or two and colludes with the mysterious and menacing Mooney, who may be connected to Harry’s last victim. How this plays out is the heart of the play, which I won’t spoil.

At the interval, I wasn’t sure what to make of it as there was so much to unravel, but the second half plays out brilliantly and unpredictably with horror and humour in equal measure in a style only McDonagh could write, with some of the most un-PC lines you’ll hear in a theatre today! The cast is outstanding. David Morrisssey is terrific as Harry, with a very commanding presence, and Reece Sheersmith is the perfect foil as the hapless Syd. Johnny Flynn captures the menace of Mooney in the best performance I’ve seen him give. The ever-present drinkers are superbly characterised by Ryan Hope, Graeme Hawley and especially Simon Rouse as partially deaf Arthur. When we eventually meet John Hodgkinson’s Pierrpoint, he’s every inch the No. 1 hangman, towering over Harry’s No. 2.

The first scene is two years earlier in prison and when the location changes, the transformation is quite a shock, and perhaps a bit over-engineered and unnecessarily expensive. There’s a third location, a cafe, which is cleverly created more modestly. There’s a real attention to period detail for the main pub set; Anna Fleschle’s design is impressive, as is Matthew Dunster’s direction.

I thought we might have lost McDonagh to films. He never completed the Aran Islands trilogy as he wasn’t happy with the third play and his only subsequent work was written specifically for New York and we haven’t seen it here, so this return is a real treat and the production and performances do full justice to a cracking play.

 

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I much admire Daniel Radcliffe’s post-Potter bravery in selecting stage roles. First he got his kit off in Equus, ten he put his head in the lion’s den of a big Broadway musical, now a black comedy where he has to transform himself into a disabled Irish boy!

It’s 10 years since we lost Martin McDonough to film, 12 since the last of his Irish comedies and 16 years since this was produced at the NT. I’d almost forgotten how original, how dark and how funny these plays were and this revival proves it.

It’s 1934 in a small West Ireland village when news arrives that a Hollywood director is coming to make a documentary on an offshore island. Crippled orphan Billy, adopted by the Osbourne spinsters, tells a lie to get Babbybobby to take him with fellow teenagers Helen & Bartley to seek fame. Billy does indeed end up in California (without returning from the island to collect the passport he already has, presumably!)  for a screen test;  unforgivable in Helen’s eyes, something he discovers on his return. The humour is ever so dark and even more shocking in the even more politically correct 21st century, the story twists and turns satisfying and the 2.5 hours rush by.

The casting is impeccable. Ingrid Craigie & Gillian Hanna are marvellous as the sisters. There’s a terrific turn as the local gossip with a wonderful name, Johnnypateenmike, from Pat Shortt. Sarah Greene is superb as feisty red-head bully Helen, as is Conor MacNeill as her put-upon brother Bartley. We even get another of June Watson’s delicious cameos as Johnnypateenmike’s Ma. So, it’s no star vehicle. It’s hard to see behind the iconic film character, but I did much admire Radcliffe’s performance as Billy. His accent holds up well against the others, all of whom seem to be native, and he sustains a believable deformity throughout.

Great to see a McDonough play again, great to see this fine young actor continue to stretch himself and great to see the Michael Grandage season continue to provide us with quality like this. Off you go…..

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Less than half the c.50 plays I’ve seen in London this year have been new (I can’t wait for Edinburgh to restore the balance). Of the revivals many were definitely worth reviving – from Shakespeare (the Almeida’s Measure for Measure and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Rose in Kingston) through Miller (The Open Air’s Crucible and All My Sons in the West End) to The Beauty Queen of Leenane just last Saturday at the Young Vic…..but I would question whether both the Buckner at the NT on Friday and this last night at the Donmar deserve it.

This early 19th century German play centres on a dreamy young prince who becomes a war hero but because he doesn’t strictly follow his orders finds himself in deep trouble. By the interval, though it had held my attention, I was thinking ‘so?’. The second half was much better as the debate about his reasons and the rights and wrongs unfolds. It’ OK, but just OK, and not in my view good enough to see it replace better revivals or new work from the London stage.

Simply but elegantly staged and well acted, it’s hard to fault the production but hard to justify all the effort.

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Martin McDonagh was one of the freshest playwriting talents to emerge in the 90’s and this was his first play and the first in the Connemara trilogy of black comedies – well, all his work is black comedies! I think we might have lost him to films after the success of In Bruges which he wrote and directed, so we might have to make do with revivals like this.

Fourteen years on, Joe Hill-Gibbons has given us a cracking second look at this play and it’s to his credit that it still seems fresh. Ultz has designed a brilliantly realistic cottage and there’s a lovely touch in that you have a peep behind the scenes on the way to your seats.

It’s the story of a 40-something virgin spinster who falls for a local man who falls for her. She seems to have found the escape manual but underestimates the deviousness of her manipulative old mother. This is the blackest of black comedies with torture and murder and moments after you’ve stopped laughing you find yourself turning your eyes away from the stage to avoid something truly gruesome.

Rosaleen Linehan is terrific as the mother who plays psychological mind games; it may make you recollect being on the receiving end of similar! Susan Lynch is an appropriately naive yet manic daughter and David Ganley was so good as her prospective husband Pato that he got a round of applause for his monologue at the start of Act II. Terence Keeley turns Pato’s brother Ray into a bit of a caricature but it doesn’t detract from the play.

I suspect we’ll see a lot more McDonagh revivals; lets hope they’re all this good.

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