Should I stay or should I go?

<i>The Wexford Trilogy</i> | Tricycle Theatre, London
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The Independent Culture

Any of the plays that make up Billy Roche's Wexford Trilogy would make a swift and certain cure for homesick Irish, reminding them that they're far better off over here. But if small-town Ireland is poor in material and spiritual comfort, it provides a rich loam for literature, with its tasty idiom and its inbuilt conflict between those who are content to stay and those who dream of escape.

Any of the plays that make up Billy Roche's Wexford Trilogy would make a swift and certain cure for homesick Irish, reminding them that they're far better off over here. But if small-town Ireland is poor in material and spiritual comfort, it provides a rich loam for literature, with its tasty idiom and its inbuilt conflict between those who are content to stay and those who dream of escape.

The sadness of the trilogy's material is countered by the heartening development of Roche's talent from A Handful of Stars (1988), focused on a single angry young man, to Poor Beast in the Rain (1989), with its interplay of several commanding characters, to Belfry (1991), in which Roche not only moves away from conventional form but creates an Irishman who actually wants to love and please a woman. (A church may seem an unlikely spot for adulterous passion, but at least it's not a place where men go to hide from women, unlike the earlier plays' settings of a snooker club and a betting shop.)

Wilson Milam's actors remain true to the hard-bitten nature of the language, whose comedy is always tinged with hopelessness, without succumbing to posturing or sentimentality. The very attractive Peter McDonald, in the first play, makes us feel, by never exploiting it, the suffering of this boy who has nothing to do with his energy except destroy himself. Michael McElhatton's quiet, almost sinister authority is impressive in all three plays, and Eamon Maguire in the second is marvellous as the hearty, busy man who is painfully bewildered when the others don't like him or refuse to support his fantasies.

In Belfry, however, Gary Lydon is, from the beginning, too soft as the mother-dominated sacristan transformed by a love affair. We miss the contrast between a decent but distant man, afraid of living, and one who learns to expose himself to sorrow and transcend it.

As the trilogy goes on, Roche relies less on colourful everyday speech ("a man wid no bell on his bike"; "There's more meat on a butcher's apron'') and lets his characters express themselves with poetic intensity ("I'm more a man in mournin' than a hawk in the night"; "I came back to kiss the cross they hung me on"). But, while this language is moving and believable, one feels it expands the characters and situations as far as they can go, rather than taking us into new territory. In the well-worn types of The Wexford Trilogy, I sometimes felt myself longing for the madness (which conveyed a truth deeper than reality can tell) of Father Ted.

To 4 Feb; 020-7328 1000

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