Proof, if it indeed needed, that a little learning can be a dangerous thing – especially in the hands of the Whingers.
Or to be more specific in the hands of Phil who “studied” Juno and the Paycock at school. Naturally this was when Sean O’ Casey‘s play was practically a contemporary work so he can recall very little of it. He remembers his copy of the play came in a green cover with a strange texture which made a very agreeable sound as you ran your fingernails over it. How comforting to hear of an education that didn’t go to waste.
And nothing would stop Phil happily entertaining Andrew with his one almost correctly remembered quote “That’s the last time you’ll blow the froth off a pint of mine Joxer Daly” as they arrived at the National Theatre. How apt it should be a line involving alcohol.
This is the National’s first co-production with the Dublin’s Abbey Theatre who first staged the play in 1924. The Boyle family live in a shabby (Bob Crowley’s design is peculiarly roomy, several families of cat-swingers could move in) tenement in Dublin. Heavy drinking work-shy Captain Jack Boyle (Ciarán Hinds), his wife Juno (Sinéad Cusack), their son and daughter Johnny (Ronan Raftery who must feel a bit of a fraud, having no peculiar accents on any of the letters in his name) who has lost an arm in the civil war and Mary (Clare Dunne, ditto) who is on strike.
It wasn’t just Juno who was long-suffering for the first hour of Howard Davies production as there was very little to engage with. Hinds’ Captain Jack convincingly struts, blusters and moans “Th’ whole worl’s in a state o’ chassis” and goes off to have his froth blown by his ne’er-do-well mate Joxer Daly (an excellent Risteárd Cooper) returning to an earful from his wife as she brews endless “tay” and appears to fry sausages. Johnny (a part taken by Dad’s Army‘s John Laurie in the 1930 Hitchcock film version) mopes around moodily. As the curtains (almost) closed at the end of the first scene the Whingers were able to watch stage hands scurrying around changing the furniture happily declaring it “the best bit so far”. Oh dear.
Then at last something happens in the plot development department: the family receive news that they are in line for a considerable inheritance and their fortunes appear to be on the up and so was the play. Things also perked considerably when Janet Moran as neighbour Maisie Madigan popped in. But you’re not out of the woods yet; this is an Irish play, so of course the whole thing is marinated in such a thick solution of Oirishness you can’t get through it without at least one character breaking into a dreary song. Whingers’ panic set in at one juncture when it looked worryingly as if the whole cast was going to get up and do a turn.
The Whingers were very impressed by Raftery’s Johnny but had spent much of the opening scene studying his very believable one armedness. Was it strapped to his torso? Was his costume specially tailored to accommodate the effect so convincingly? On the other hand (so to speak) Phil was also fascinated by Cusack’s own handicap; an appallingly unconvincing wig. It’s a tribute to Phil’s ex-”stalker” that she overcame this distraction to deliver an ultimately moving turn.
According to the programme the success of the play enabled O’Casey to give up his job as a cement-mixer. Andrew remained unconvinced that it merits “classic” status. But the performances here are all very sound and in some cases excellent – the Whingers predict London will be seeing more of Ronan Raftery in the future; in the meantime his name will come to mind every time Andrew ventures into his attic. And although little happens in the first hour after the interval it’s just one thing after another thereafter.
For the record: the Whingers imbibed cups of tay in the interval (it was a matinee) but were back on course happily blowing each others froth afterwards.