"Mmm, I love that smell," declares Simone Kirby's excellent Lily, the boss's sharp-tongued, long-suffering mistress as she enters the marquee tent with its centrally erected boxing ring. "Sweat and dust and leather. And somethin' else, what is that?" She sarcastically mimes fondling a pair of balls, as though she'd like to be able to say "cojones" and can't. But then, you can hardly blame her. It's not the whiff of testosterone but the sad reek of masculine disappointment and defeat that pervades Delaney's Travelling Road Show, the struggling outfit in Sixties rural Ireland that is the setting for Lay Me Down Softly, Billy Roche's bittersweet, ruefully humorous play.
All-comers are invited to match their fists against the unbeaten resident prizefighter Dean (Anthony Morris). It's characteristic of the bantering bathos in which the play trades – and also of the author's rather flaccid production – that there are no flashily balletic fight sequences, as there have been in recent theatrical boxing dramas such as Sucker Punch by Roy Williams and Beautiful Burnout by Bryony Lavery. Instead, the lights dip and come up on the unheroic aftermath – with the Travelling Road Show team battling to revive Dean, say, after he's been KO'd by a retired pro out to revenge a humiliated uncle. Or – but that would be telling. The fact that the Great White Hope of the outfit is Junior (Dermot Murphy) a handsome if dim youth, whose days as welterweight contender came to an embarrassing end when he lamed himself while skipping, says a lot about the shrunken prospects of the group.
As in Roche's The Wexford Trilogy, the new piece delights in the anecdotal quirk and the incorrigible way that comedy and tragedy leak into each other. But it's not sufficiently energised either by opposition from the dissenting spirit of the two female figures, the other being the boss's estranged teenage daughter (Pagan McGrath) who comes for a sceptical visit, or by any sense of a changing mood in the nascent Sixties. Gary Lydon and Michael O'Hagan are both terrific, as respectively, the restlessly discontented, potentially violent boss, who looks back for sustenance to his tough unbringing and the glory days that never were, and as the old, proud, lonely trainer who is the play's moral conscience. You may end up feeling, though, that it is not just the characters who are stuck in a rut.
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