Martin McDonagh is an award-winning British-Irish playwright whose most recent success came from penning and directing the highly-acclaimed film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. His first six plays were made up of two trilogies, located in and around County Galway in West Ireland. The first title in the second of those trilogies – The Aran Islands Trilogy – is The Cripple of Inishmaan.
The Cripple of Inishmaan had its world premiere at London’s National Theatre in 1996. A 2013 West End rival, starring Daniel Radcliffe, subsequently transferred to Broadway for a successful run, which earned six Tony Award nominations. Now, The Cripple of Inishmaan is on stage at Sydney’s Old Fitz Theatre in a new production presented by Mad March Hare Theatre Company in association with Red Line Productions.
Set in 1934, McDonagh’s text tells the story of the island community of Inishmaan. Johnnypateenmike (Laurence Coy), the town gossip, spreads word that a film crew from Hollywood has arrived on the neighbouring island of Inishmore to make a documentary. Learning of this, a 17-year-old orphan with a physical disability, Billy Claven (William Rees), decides the film will be his escape from the monotony and unkindness of Inishmaan. He’s been raised by two caring but eccentric sisters, Eileen (Sarah Aubrey) and Kate (Megan O’Connell), but both women – and the rest of Inishmaan’s residents – cruelly call him ‘Cripple Billy’ and he’s the subject of incessant mean-spirited jokes.
Billy convinces a boat owner, Babbybobby Bennett (John Harding), to transport him to Inishmore so that he can meet the film’s director and begin his pursuit of an acting career in America. Unsurprisingly, the path to fame on the silver screen isn’t as easy to navigate as Billy had anticipated.
McDonagh’s adeptly-written black comedy is very entertaining, though there’s enough in the mores of Ireland 1934 that jars with modern sensibilities to make you uncomfortable. Director Claudia Barrie has created a fine production, well-paced and punctuated by wonderfully-choreographed ‘in character’ scene transitions, and successfully evokes a time and place far removed from our own, foregrounding the talents of a terrific cast.
Making his professional debut, Rees delivers a sensitive portrayal of the maligned orphan, who seeks relief from the endemic prejudice that infuses every thread of the fabric of this community. Aubrey and O’Connell are both excellent as his “aunties”, candy lover Eileen and her sister, Kate, who talks to stones. Coy gives us a masterful performance as the venal and yarn-spreading Johnnypateenmike, Josh Anderson earns his share of the laughs as Bartley, and Jane Watt demonstrates her sizeable acting and comic skills as the rough and brutal Helen. Harding lends a towering presence to Babbybobby Bennett, while Alex Bryant-Smith as the doctor and Jude Gibson as Johnnypateenmike’s aging, hard drinking mother complete this deft cast. Mention must also be made of the integral contribution of voice and dialect coach Amanda Stephens-Lee, who has succeeded in ensuring everyone sounds the part. The accents here are faultless.
Barrie’s production of The Cripple of Inishmaan paints a vivid picture of an island community, oppressed by grinding poverty, isolating, superstition and history, and made up of a cast of characters so insensitive and so unwise and yet capable of real kindness. It’s ultimately great theatre.
THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: The Old Fitz Theatre. 129 Dowling St, Woolloomooloo
Season: Playing now until August 10 2019
Times: Tuesday – Saturday: 7:30pm;
Saturday matinees (July 27, August 3, August 10): 2:00pm; Sundays: 5:00pm
Prices: $33.00 – $65.00