“If you’re going to talk about sheep deformities, hand me the bottle”
Third up for the Michael Grandage Company is ‘the Daniel Radcliffe one’, the first major revival of Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan. But though it is being sold on the strength of its star, it is much more of an ensemble piece than first impressions would allow, as a picture of 1930s rural Irish life in all its brusque humour, unstinting relentlessness and occasional vicious kicks is built up. A break from the old routine is offered when a Hollywood film crew arrives on the neighbouring island of Inishmore and no-one is more excited about the opportunity than Cripple Billy, a young orphan lad blighted by physical disability from birth and who spots an opportunity to escape the blunt cruelty of the daily taunts.
Still in previews, Grandage’s production doesn’t quite seem to have decided how it wants to straddle the line between stereotypical olde Oirish sentimentality and McDonagh’s more brutal sensibilities which might be familiar to those that have seen The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Part of the problem lies in a vein of comedy that feels somewhat uninspired so it does, relying on the repeated utterances, without malice mind, of words and phrases that ought to jar in our more politically correct times. But this is essentially one gag extended throughout much of the show and it soon wears thin – the over-emphasis on how kookily different things were back then and over there just isn’t enough to hang a play on, especially when Grandage is playing it as safe as this.
And I also felt that Radcliffe has a way to go before he’s ready to play the part of Cripple Billy. His manifestation of Billy’s affliction is clearly sensitively researched but lacks the raw physicality that should accompany one so bruised by life and one longs for him to submerge entirely into the depths of the character to create something more convincing in his portrayal of someone struggling on the cusp of becoming a young man and establishing some kind of physical and emotional independence – something that could well come as the run progresses. So the focus turns instead to the bustling busybodies of Inishmaan who are mostly very well acted but not a one of them feels like a real person.
Ingrid Craigie and Gillian Hanna hem and haw vividly as Billy’s adopted aunties who point out the shortcomings of the world as they run their shop; Pat Shortt and June Watson pair up effectively as the village gossip and his ailing mother who he keeps topped up with whiskey; and Sarah Greene has an untamed quality as the wild egg-cracking Helen who Billy dreams of kissing one day. But there’s rarely a sense of genuine emotional life behind any of these people, keeping them perilously close to caricature – though possibly as much McDonagh’s fault as Grandage’s – and keeping the audience at arm’s length from the whole affair.
Consequently I really didn’t enjoy this that much – it certainly didn’t move me and I barely laughed. For a tenner though, one can’t complain too much and there did seem to be those in the audience who enjoyed themselves more than us (the reaction throughout was increasingly muted though, I have to say) but this was altogether too polite for my liking.