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  The Theatreguide.London Review


The Lieutenant Of Inishmore
RSC Pit 2001-2; Garrick Theatre 2002

Martin McDonagh writes black comic shaggy dog plays that meander their way through minimal plots and along the borders of good taste, chronicling the macabre eccentricities of a mythical race called the Irish. Like his previous hits (The Cripple of Inishmann, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, etc.), his current play is not for all tastes, but a delight for those who can give themselves over to the joys of the politically incorrect.

The title character, Padriac, is the self-anointed officer of a one-man splinter group of an offshoot of an offshoot of the IRA ("The IRA wouldn't let him in because he was too mad.. .and he never forgave them for it."), whose only tender emotion is for his pet cat, Wee Thomas. But as the play opens, the poor kitty has died, and the job of everyone else in the village is first to try to keep the news from Padriac, and then to cope with his murderous reaction when he discovers it.

The process involves the lieutenant's father, the neighbour boy who found the lamented Wee Thomas, that boy's sister, who can shoot the eye out of a cow at 60 yards with her airgun (though no one is quite sure why she wanted to), and the members of the group Padriac splintered from, upset because he has graduated from trying unsuccessfully to bomb fish-and-chip shops ("Because chip shops aren't as well guarded as army barracks") to attacking the drug dealers they have been shaking down to finance their activities. Oh, yes, and at least one other cat, drafted to impersonate the late Thomas.

You can see the classic structure of farce there, with a simple problem leading to ever-escalating absurd attempts to deal with it. Added to that comic backbone is the basic joke of all McDonagh's plays, his characters' skewed values and moralities. The terrorist swings wildly from his calm torture of a prisoner to his grief for his kitty, the father and neighbour try frantically to disguise a ginger cat as black Wee Thomas, but get distracted by the pleasant smell of the shoe polish they're using, and, in a particularly grisly scene, the disposal of a stage full of dead bodies is treated by all with the minor annoyance due everyday chores.

Trevor Cooper as the father and Owen Sharpe as the neighbour have a lot of fun portraying characters who are not-quite-level themselves trying to cope with a situation even more skewed than they, while David Wilmot makes Padriac comically believable just by playing him as absolutely sane and rational, by his own standards, and Kerry Condon turns the sharpshooting lassie into a delightfully attractive figure, just your normal red-blooded bloodthirsty country girl.

It should be stated that there are several onstage killings, both human and feline, and one scene of such completely over-the-top simulated gore that it is clearly comic, though every audience has one or two walk-outs at that point. So those who are squeamish, either about onstage blood or about finding dark comedy in subjects others treat seriously, will find that this play is not for them.

But those who revel in the skilful flirtation with bad taste, and who recognise that nose-thumbing laughter is a legitimate life-affirming response to tragedy will delight in McDonagh's unabashed high spirits.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

JUNE 2002: After a delay of several months, no doubt caused by commercial producers' queasiness about the macabre humour and onstage simulated gore of Martin McDonagh's very, very black comedy, it has finally transferred from the RSC to the West End. And all those who can delight in McDonagh's characteristic mix of dry wit and bad taste can celebrate. The rest of you can go watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Scroll up for our original review, with a full plot summary. Briefly, the play hinges on a blood-mad IRA defector whose one soft spot is for his pet cat, and the frantic efforts of everyone to keep him from discovering that the kitty is dead. This gives McDonagh lots of opportunity to exercise his Ortonesque sense of humour. Indeed, a second viewing makes it clear how much he has in common with the seemingly unique Joe Orton. Both combine a sure hand at classic farce with a wild verbal wit and a curiously appealing determination to be shocking.

Orton shocked by breaking taboos of sexual good taste, while McDonagh does it with violence. There are several graphically-simulated onstage shootings and, as I warned in my earlier review, one scene of such incredibly over-the-top gore that you have to bow down to the guy's comic audacity. And it's all very, very funny.

The move from the Pit to a proscenium stage actually softens the shock a bit, as it isn't so thoroughly in-your-face, and I doubt that there will be as many outraged walk-outs at the Garrick (and I wonder if that will disappoint the author). The restaging also seems to slow things down a bit, allowing a little more breathing time between laughs.

The almost entirely new cast are all fine. Peter McDonald captures the bizarre contradictions of the cat-loving killer, and Domhnall Gleeson gets great comic mileage out of the neighbour kid panicked at the thought that he will be blamed for the kitty's demise. It takes a while for Elaine Cassidy to catch the quirky charm of the local girl who is half lovestruck teenager, half gunslinger, but she gets there; and the one holdover from the original cast, Trevor Cooper, provides a solid comic anchor

Once again I have to warn that if simulated gore upsets you or joking in the face of simulated gore offends you, this isn't the play for you. But if your tastes are sufficiently skewed, you'll have a great time.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Lieutenant of Inishmore - RSC Pit 2001