You have to hand it to Daniel Radcliffe. Whether baring his all in the West End and on Broadway in Equus, or winning the New York Outer Critics' Circle Award for Outstanding Actor in a Musical for How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, he's not been content to sit back on his pots of Harry Potter money or to settle for soft cinematic options.
Now, in Michael Grandage's highly adroit revival of this dark, politically incorrect 1997 comedy by Martin McDonagh (the third production in the Grandage Company's fifteen-month season at the Noel Coward Theatre), Radcliffe takes on the challenge of portraying the 17-year-old title character.
Billy is a bookish, romantic soul, orphaned in mysterious circumstances and raised by two surrogate aunts, who longs to escape the suffocating, petty-minded tedium of life on the Aran Islands in the mid-1930s and the humiliating mockery he has to endure from the locals.
A potential escape route beckons thanks to the arrival of real-life film maker Robert Flaherty who has come to neighbouring island Inishmore to make what will eventually be his celebrated documentary Man of Aran. Billy smuggles himself onto the set and gets sent for a screen test to Hollywood. It's an understatement to suggest that the character's fortunes in the movie-world do not quite match those of the actor now ironically playing him.
Radcliffe may not have the most convincing Irish accent in Grandage's vividly quirky ensemble and there may be folk who wish that he brought a more flayed, heart-snagging physicality to the half-withered Billy's effortful movements. But, to my mind, Radcliffe's honest, sensitive, unshowy performance, by admirably refusing to milk the part for pathos, gives you clear, touching access to the finer-grained spirit that sets the character apart from this bored, back-biting world where a sheep with no ears counts as major news and where laughing at other people's misfortunes is a routine diversion.
The Cripple of Inishmaan lacks the suspense and the claustrophobic intensity of McDonagh's debut play The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Nor is its characteristic method of mixing callous comedy and opportunistic heart-string-twanging directed at a worthy target, as is the case with The Lieutenant of Inishmore (2001) which hilariously exposes the psychotic sentimentality at the heart of IRA terrorism.
McDonagh can manufacture brilliantly funny, cod “Orish” dialogue by the yard and here the essentially synthetic, Synge-pastiching nature of his art is supposed to be justified because it points up, in a post-modern manner, how all versions of Ireland may be foisted-on fakes – even when they aspire to documentary status. This is amusingly indicated in the rowdy scene where Man of Aran is screened and the locals are too busy squabbling to give the footage more than half a scornfully sceptical eye: “It's rare that off Ireland you get sharks”.
Grandage's assured production skilfully disguises the predictable unpredictability of the plot twists. His cast give the frustrations of the stock-type islanders a sharp comic vigour – especially Sarah Greene as Helen, a ferocious teenage spitfire who can't be restrained from “pegging” eggs at people, in particular despised priests (“getting clergymen groping your arse doesn't take much skill” she declares with a blitheness that now comes across rather uncomfortably).
Radcliffe comes across as the genuine article in the midst of all these deliberate authenticities. But, for my taste, McDonagh's play wants too much to have its soda bread and eat it.
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