Martin McDonagh is perhaps the closest thing Britain has to a living playwright-celebrity. Alongside Jez Butterworth and a precious few others, McDonagh’s name is one which, on its own, has the marketing power to sell out a 3-month run. His work is worshipped by west-end luvvies and Hollywood producers alike. On the morning before the opening night of this production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore for instance, it is announced that McDonagh’s new play will feature in the Bridge Theatre’s next season. The night before at the cinema, I also see a trailer for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, his latest film, which has been widely tipped for Oscar glory since it opened at Venice this summer. The man is everywhere and, as a result, it seems Tightrope Productions couldn’t have made a shrewder choice for their latest project.
However, the fact that McDonagh exists very much within the mainstream of British theatre does not make his material any easier to work with. In fact, the action of Lieutenant is stuffed-full of things that make it a uniquely tricky script to put on with student-actors and a student-sized budget. Blood, guts, guns, dead animals, Irish accents – all provide serious obstacles for even the most experienced director, problems that must be solved in order for the play to succeed.
Lieutenant starts in the same acerbic style all its author’s plays do. “Do you think it’s dead Donny?” asks Davey, a young ginger-haired Galway lad, staring at the corpse of a cat. As soon becomes clear, the dead pet he surveys is not just any animal. It is, in fact, the corpse of ‘Wee Thomas’, the much beloved cat of Padraic, a terrorist from the IRA splinter group, INLA. The humour of the situation is thus imbued with something else. It makes us chuckle yes, but it also promises imminent violence, something both we and the characters onstage begin to dread. This seemingly innocent first-line is the catalyst for 80 minutes of brutal retribution and anarchy. It immediately sets the tone of the dark humour that ensues.
Indeed, this first scene is a good exemplum for both the main virtues and flaws of Lawford’s production. The cast is very talented and McDonagh’s black comedy is thrilling, every single gag structured to perfection. This language is a particular pleasure when delivered by Hugh Tappin. He, more than anyone else, has a brilliant sense of timing and the sustained confidence and ease with which he drops each punchline is impressive. Two other standouts include Chris Page and Kate Weir, who breathe life into the sometimes sweet, sometimes terrifying couple at the heart of the action. Cameron Spain also deserves a mention for maintaining the best accent and for the dry wit with which he uses it.
However, sharing the stage with this great company of actors when the light first comes up is also a plush-toy cat. It is obviously excessive to argue that the show should incorporate living animals into its production however the multiple toy-cats used to represent different felines throughout the play is somewhat jarring. One wonders why the actors could not have mimed holding an animal as an alternative to this feature that clearly detracts from our ability to engage with the piece. Similarly, it would have been impossible for Lawford to recreate the level of violence that the play demands but the use of audibly fake gunshots and too little fake blood means that the brutality sometimes loses its power to horrify or indeed entertain.
This may seem like a pedantic criticism, but McDonagh’s humour is so dependent on a philosophy of excess, of visual absurdity, of pornographic violence, that, whilst not all their own fault, Tightrope’s inability to realise this sometimes lets down the hyperrealism his language builds. On occasion, it disappointed me given the potential of the script and the actors clear ability to deliver it well.
Besides this, Lawford has an excellent understanding of pace and the play rockets by without any loss of energy. The whole of the O’Reilly’s space is used in imaginative ways to create different settings. With an admirably large audience for opening night, the house was filled with laughs throughout. Anticipation being what it is, it’s likely that the power team behind Tightrope Productions will do exceptionally well with this show and, by and large, they deserve it. I look forward to where they decide to take us next.