The Cripple of Inishmaan
Noel Coward Theatre
Until August 31
YOU’VE got to admire Daniel Radcliffe’s willingness to take a risk.
The 23-year-old could have chosen an easier path pursuing Hollywood dross then setting out to forge a stage career which has seen him play a succession of social outsiders, each offering differing levels of complexity.
The Cripple of Inishmaan, his third stage role, is no exception.
Radcliffe has chosen a lavish revival of London-Irish man Martin McDonagh’s 1996 play as his latest vehicle to step out of the shadows cast by the Harry Potter series.
Here he plays Billy Claven – or ‘Cripple Billy’ as the locals mockingly call him - a 17-year-old orphan with a withered arm and a badly bent leg living on Inishmaan, a remote island off Ireland’s west coast.
It’s 1934 and Billy lives with his mother’s spinster sisters Kate and Eileen Osbourne (a wonderfully mournful double-act of Ingrid Craigie and Gillian Hanna) following the mysterious death of his parents.
His dreary existence consists of reading, “thinking too much” and staring at cows as he longs for any means to escape the constant taunts of the locals.
That motley crew includes gossip-monger Johnnypateenmike (Pat Shortt), soft-hearted fisherman Babbybobby (Padraic Delaney) and feisty teenager Helen McCormick (Sarah Greene), a foul-mouthed and feared girl whom Billy is secretly in love with.
Billy’s chance to escape finally arrives with word that American documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty has come to the neighbouring island of Inishmore to make his famous, but not entirely authentic, documentary, Man of Aran. Could this be Billy’s chance to breakaway?
McDonagh’s play drips with dark comedy, coarse wit and downright nastiness as he toys with the idea of storytelling and the deception and inauthenticity that stories deliver. To the naked ear his depictions of the locals might be described as ‘stage Irish’ but that is to do McDonagh a disservice.
From the locals’ thoughts of better lives in Hollywood to their derision at their depiction in the Man of Aran, McDonagh plays with the false realities peddled by myth and the myth’s created by his characters in order to further their means.
Although Radcliffe is the marquee attraction, this is very much an ensemble piece with McDonagh creating meaty roles that allow all to sink their teeth into.
Radcliffe – although still carrying Potter baggage - delivers a subtly assured performance that mixes vulnerability and charm but lacks showiness. This is a problem in a play deliberately full of showy characters and Pat Shortt and Belfast’s Conor McNeill will make no apologies for the wonderful manner in which they gnaw into their roles.
Sarah Greene’s Helen, however, is the real standout. A role which any young actress would relish, Greene steals her opening scenes in rip-roaring manner as the brash and fearful teenager who draws many of the play’s opening laughs.
Radcliffe’s accent must also come in for a mention as it no doubt impacts on his ability to concentrate on other aspects of his performance. Although he has nailed the Irish brogue, he veers wildly away from the West with his words meshing together patches of Galway and North Dublin with the odd Northern Irish indentation creeping in.
The play’s greatest pleasure is McDonagh’s dialogue. For a London man born and bred, his ear for an Irish turn of phrase is spot-on and it is his geographical distance by birth that allows him to draw closer to the bone than most of his first-generation Irishmen might like.
Some will find the play’s lack of heart bracing and uncomfortable as the playwright carves out a nasty and rough world, deliberately at odds with our own myth of Ireland’s past. Others will find criticism in the play’s plodding plot with director Michael Grandage’s production, at times, slowing to a crawl.
Regardless, 17 years on McDonagh’s Cripple of Innishmaan remains a twisted work that leaves an aftertaste, regardless of how palatable that might be.