The title The Cripple of Inishmaan gives the best clues as to the tone of the humour in the play – it’s politically incorrect, dark and irreverent. One slightly shocked viewer sitting behind me confessed during the interval that he’d thought the ‘cripple’ of the title was going to be metaphorical, rather than a reference to the physical disabilities of the main character, Billy (Conor Dumbrell).
Set in the 1930s against the historical backdrop of Robert Flaherty coming to the Aran Islands to film ‘Man of Aran’, The Cripple of Inishmaan plays off the same stereotypes that the film raises about the Irish, while brilliantly inverting them. When Cripple Billy hears about the filming from Johnnypateenmike (the local gossip-monger famous for his boring news), he along with the other young people on the island see it as a chance to escape the mundanity of his life on Inishmaan. What follows is a black comedy which is dark as coal-dust and at times uncomfortable, the plot never allowing itself to take a conventional turn.
The careful attention to detail across all parts of the production is really commendable here. The set is one of the more ambitious that I’ve seen in an ADC mainshow, with revolving pieces, wheel-on beds and changing backdrops. Particularly effective is the penultimate scene when the characters gather for a screening of ‘Man of Aran’ and the film is projected onto the stage. The traditional Irish music used during set changes brilliantly captures the stereotypes about Ireland from which the play constantly tries to break, and the costumes were also perfect at conjuring up the atmosphere of the isolated community, the rugged knitwear, cardigans and shawls constantly reminding us of the island setting.
For those familiar with McDonagh’s work, it may seem strange for me to say that I came out of ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’ feeling more good-natured than I had expected. Though hardly full of the milk of human kindness – and ending on a note a distinctly hopeless note – the characters seem to have more goodness in them than is typical in McDonagh. The lies which propel the story forward, for example, are mostly told out of love and empathy rather than spite, and by the end of the play, they end up predominately sympathetic - even Johnnypateenmike who is trying to drink his 90-something mother to death.
This is in large part due to the strength of the acting, and indeed, there was rarely a section of the play which felt tonally off. I particularly enjoyed Ellie Cole and Kim Alexander as Eileen and Kate, Cripple Billy’s pair of ‘fake aunties’, the former stern and sarcastic (with a sweet tooth), the latter more naïve and waifish, with a penchant for talking to stones. The sibling pair Slippy Helen (Eve Delaney) and Bartley (Toby Waterworth) had their share of the biggest laughs, particularly in the scene when they play at being England and Ireland with a box of eggs. I won’t spoil the joke, but the scene was hilarious. The only weak link in the play is Henry Philips’ Johnnypateenmike (a shame, as his character has more than his fair share of the best lines), whose performance couldn’t quite keep up with that of his fellow actors. Thankfully, the talent of those around him was strong enough that this didn’t hugely take away from the play as a whole.
All this is not to suggest that The Cripple of Inishmaan is an easy watch: but it’s the easiest, I think, McDonagh can ever get. It’s dark, uncomfortable, at times sad – but for all this, it never stops being hilarious. McDonagh’s plays are often hard to gauge tonally, because much of the humour can seem cruel and shocking, but the key to playing it right is to create a fundamental sense of sympathy between the characters and the audience, and this production captured these essential elements perfectly.
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