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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  Sinéad Cusack/ Ph: Catherine Ashmore

There is plenty of comedy in Sean O’Casey’s 1922 Dublin tragedy. The drunk duo of Captain Jack Boyle and his equally inebriated sidekick Joxer are like a couple of musical hall acts – as feckless as they are legless. Yet they are also products of desperate times and circumstance. 
Set against the backdrop of Ireland’s post-settlement civil war between the Free Staters and the Republican Die Hards, all the action takes place in the Boyle family’s grimy tenement. Yet on more than one occasion that backdrop comes to the fore. It happens when Boyle’s traumatized son Johnny, who has already lost an arm to “the troubles,” is abducted by pistol-toting Die Hards. And it happens when the Boyle’s matriarch Juno opens her door to the grieving Mrs Tancred, whose son’s body was found the day before, riddled with bullets.
It is a scene during which Mrs Tancred delivers a desolate, haunting, monumental lament for her own family and an entire country. Or she would have if, on this press night, Sinéad Cusack’s Juno had managed to open the door. As the catastrophic prop failure became harder to disguise, the cast stood transfixed as Cusack’s Juno pulled and tugged at the door handle until she eventually called on her husband Captain Jack for help. Ciaran Hinds’ Captain strode over, but he too failed to open the door. Eventually Hinds adlibbed, “Has anybody a key?” Finally a man wearing headphones walked onto the stage and put the cast out of their misery and, it has to be admitted, much of the audience out of their delight. He announced an impromptu break to fix the door. When grieving Mrs Tancred finally entered the room, she did so to ironic cheers from the audience. 
It says a lot for Howard Davies’ Abbey Theatre and NT co-production that the mood was soon restored. But the balance was never quite right even before the door failed to open.
The transfer from the Abbey’s relatively small stage to the vastness of the Lyttelton has turned designer Bob Crowley’s dirt-encrusted drawing room into a space of palatial proportions. The result is that much of the despair generated by the play appears to evaporate into the Lyttelton’s upper atmosphere. And even at this altitude there is still some way to go before it reaches the plaster detail of the room’s ceiling. 
Furthermore Cusack’s Juno, though very moving, lacks the crucial steel of matriarch who, in grinding poverty, keeps her family from disintegrating. There is little sign that this Juno could instill fear into her husband and Joxer were the lyabouts actually to be caught lying about. That said, these work-shy specimens are experts at what they do – or rather don’t do.

Risteárd Cooper’s parasitic Joxer and Hinds’s Captain – a title derived from just the one sea voyage – are a couple of waster clowns who make Laurel and Hardy look like hard grafters. Though the most entertaining of double acts, these are the losers who keep on losing until they have only the clothes they stand in and the bare boards they stand on. It is they, rather than the O’Casey’s women, who finally stem the laughter.    


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