Juno and the Paycock, Bristol Old Vic, review: Busy and believable

A timely play about religion, unemployment and women’s roles

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The Bristol Old Vic’s first collaboration with Liverpool’s Everyman & Playhouse is appropriate, given both port cities’ historical links with Ireland.

Under Gemma Bodinetz’s direction, O’Casey’s play of one Dublin family’s cycle from poverty into tragedy via unrealised hope is a busy and believable if at times over-noisy affair.

The Old Vic is not a large space so full marks to Conor Murphy’s two-part set design. A rubble of doors and furniture topped by a piano pours onto stage behind the haggard room of a tenement house – a neat way to establish the play’s fixation on life’s imbalances (wealth/poverty, women/men, melancholy/laughter).

The production does the set proud, mostly thanks to two splendid leads. Not once did Niamh Cusack’s weathered Juno, both commanding yet vulnerable, put a gutsy foot wrong. While Des Mcaleer is a treat as the drunken self-cast seadog, ‘Captain’ Jack Boyle. His attempt to resist eating a sausage in the first act is a masterclass in facial expressions.

Of the rest of the cast, Louis Dempsey’s Joxer Daly (Boyle’s bar-hopping sidekick) is the standout, offering enough slapstick to throw the sad fate of the Boyle family into harsh relief.

While the bawdiness of the first two acts marginally overbears the tragedy of the third, Bodinetz puts on a timely production. Questions of religion, unemployment, women’s roles and – most poignant now – of independence are allowed to bubble up to the surface without distracting from O’Casey’s eloquent script.