The Playboy of the Western World, Old Vic, London
Bound, Southwark Playhouse Vault, London
Terrible Advice, Menier Chocolate Factor, London
An otherwise strong production of JM Synge's marvellous play is let down by its star, a screen actor in his first theatrical role
Eavesdropping can certainly pay off. Of The Playboy of the Western World, playwright J M Synge said he used only "one or two words that I have not heard among the country people of Ireland".
And in John Crowley's production at the Old Vic, all the words, borrowed or added, are delivered so ringingly that they are as musical, or more so, than the added songs that preface two acts.
A production's voice coach and dialect coach – here Barbara Houseman and Majella Hurley respectively – rarely get the attention accorded to the more visible designer, say, but Synge's glorious arias and cadences are delivered with love and admiration under their tutelage. Questions and answers are rendered into verses and chorus, elegiac descriptions of Irish country ways woven into mercurial tone poems.
When Christy Mahon, a young man on the run, breezes into a rural community, his elegiac turn of phrase and raffish history prompt an equally colourful reaction from the fascinated women and the undisguisedly impressed men he encounters. First up at the tomb-like bar and shop into which he stumbles (appropriately barren design by Scott Pask) is Pegeen. Reverentially played by an unsmiling Ruth Negga, she sees in the mystery fugitive a more dashing alternative to her plodding intended, Shawn (Kevin Trainor). Dedicated drinkers Philly and Jimmy, hopeful female neighbours, a knowing widow – Niamh Cusack, on sparkling form – all tumble in for a peek. Here, indeed, is a likely winner at next day's races. But then comes a second stranger.
So far, so likeable. And yet there is no escaping the unfortunate truth at the heart of this production. As the central character Christy, Robert Sheehan, exile from Misfits, is out of his depth in this, his professional stage debut, miscast as a "small, low, dark" man and larging it with stiff limbs. Time was, you earned your stripes at the Gaiety Theatre, Rhyl, and it seems unwise to have fast-tracked Sheehan into this many-layered role. If the casting was designed to attract a television audience, goodness knows what it will make of this gurning caricature. Luckily, he is deftly supported by the rest of the cast, among them Diarmuid de Faoite, with his side-splitting drunken dive, and Bronagh Taggart, mesmerising on the bodhran.
The Playboy of the Western World contrasts the romance of heroism with the reality of violence. The uncomplicated heroism that brings fish to the table is robustly celebrated in Bound, Jesse Briton's drama with music that landed a netful of awards at Edinburgh last year. And rightly so: this power-packed 85 minutes of bravado, bravery and male bonding pitches its audience in a suitably chilly railway vault from high comedy to loss.
We join six trawlermen after their return to Brixham with a bumper catch. But their buyer has gone into liquidation, and their perishable commodity is worthless in an overstocked market with no customers. Only a fresh haul will save the company, already down from its 15-vessel prime to one boat, The Violet, with too few nets. Into the arguments over this reluctant trip walks a Pole, sent by the agency, whose arrival divides the crew. And his brother Josef is on a rival vessel. And a storm's brewing ....
You might call this melodramatic, one plot twist too many, but my ancestors put out to sea in a vessel that went down with all hands. The worst things do happen at sea.
Bear Trap Theatre Company, founded by Joe Darke, who plays cocky, warm-hearted Graham, conjure up the claustrophobia of life below decks, the demands of net-hauling, and the terror of a Force 11 using only a table and chairs, and Darke's own inventiveness as music and movement director. The quickfire scenes are seamlessly linked by sea shanties sung with tenderness, and remind us that without such courageous men there would be no mackerel, no haddock, no dab.
At the sparky Menier Chocolate Factory, sex comedy Terrible Advice gets off to a hilarious start with a graphic cunnilingus tutorial, pool-lounging Jake sharing his cool-dude wisdom with sweaty, rolypoly "Stinky" Stanley. But Saul Rubinek's first play, directed by Frank Oz, peaks too soon, and it is hard to care about either of its two, intertwined, couples, despite dynamic performances by Scott Bakula as the playboy of the west coast, Caroline Quentin as his competent keeper, Andy Nyman as the clumsy friend and Sharon Horgan as barely-there Delila. Occasional truths about love and infatuation – "It was real to me at the time!" – and echoes of Woody Allen at his most neurotic struggle amid waves of self-absorption. Rubinek's idea came from listening in to dire advice dispensed over coffee. Someone should have told him this was a promising one-acter.
'Playboy of the Western World' (0844 871 7628) to 26 Nov; 'Bound' (020-7407 0234) to 22 Oct; 'Terrible Advice' (020- 7378 1713) to 12 Nov
Back to Ireland, via the National Theatre, as Kate Bassett takes The Veil, a new play by Conor McPherson
With Lesley Manville in Fifties suburbia, Mike Leigh's Grief is a gently satirical then heartbreaking portrait of single parenting and teenage surliness, at the National Theatre (to 28 Jan). At the Crucible in Sheffield, Othello re-unites The Wire stars Clarke Peters as the jealous moor and Dominic West as his scheming officer, Iago (to 15 Oct).
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