A movie is about to be shot, and some ordinary folks will get to star in it, if they make the grade. Yes, in Martin McDonagh's revived 1990s tragicomedy The Cripple of Inishmaan – set on Galway's Aran Islands in the 1930s – the local youngsters are dreaming of overnight celebrity. McDonagh was, by the way, inspired by the docu- drama The Man of Aran, made for the cinema in the early Thirties.
In his fictionalised stage version of Inishmaan, there has been diddly-squat to do in this boring back-of-beyond, except gawp at cows, or start a feud if you have a neighbour within a stone's throw. But now, we gather, a big-name American film-maker has fetched up and is to hold local auditions.
Almost everyone in this tough, rural community mocks Billy, the titular cripple and orphan boy – played by Daniel Radcliffe in Michael Grandage's new West End production. The islanders particularly scorn the lad's hopes of featuring in the film. Determined, nonetheless, he prepares to con his way to Hollywood and hurt other's feelings if necessary.
Whether this will turn out to be a rags-to-riches, happy-ever-after romance hangs in the balance.
The good news is that Radcliffe's acting has substantially improved since his merely proficient performance in Equus some years back. His Billy is quietly stalwart. The Irish accent is surprisingly OK, and the disabilities (involving a clenched hand and a stiff leg) aren't hammed up. Nor does he milk the fact that he's sweet on Helen, the flame-haired, teenage termagant who regularly strides into his aunts' spartan grocery store.
That said, Sarah Greene's Helen and her motormouthed kid brother (Conor MacNeill) can be wearisome. The older cast members are much more winning: Gillian Hanna as Radcliffe's no-nonsense Aunt Eileen; Ingrid Craigie as the mildly batty Aunt Kate; and June Watson as the booze-glugging nonagenarian mammy of Pat Shortt's Johnnypateenmike, the gossipmonger.
McDonagh's script, penned when he was only 26, is packed with cranky characters, running gags and entertainingly rude slurs, plus psychopathic moments. It's something like Billy Roche's Wexford Trilogy or JM Synge's Playboy of the Western World crossed with Father Ted and Steptoe and Son. That said, this time round it feels like a calculated crowd-pleaser and faintly bogus – maybe because McDonagh was born and bred in London, rather than Galway.
In Noël Coward's lesser-known comedy Relative Values (Theatre Royal, Bath ***) – directed by Trevor Nunn as a touring Theatre Royal Bath production – it's 1951 and the chill wind of social change is blowing through the Marshwoods' aristocratic mansion in Kent. It's messing up the class hierarchies.
The Countess's long-serving maid, Caroline Quentin's Moxie, is in a tizzy. She tearfully declares she's resigning because the Countess's son, Nigel – a peer of the realm – intends to marry Miranda Frayle, a jumped-up English commoner turned Hollywood minx. Moxie and Miranda have a past connection.
The Countess (Patricia Hodge) wants to appear kind and open-minded, though she's a crafty manipulator. Massively promoting Moxie proves to be no solution. The status quo is re-established with Katherine Kingsley's Miranda, exposed, sent packing.
Nunn's production is pretty as a picture, with elegant couture and a gilded Neoclassical drawing room (design by Stephen Brimson Lewis). The conservative conclusion is tempered by a final glimpse of Moxie and the butler, Crestwell, making themselves at home while the grandees are out. One might muse, as well, on the fact that Miranda's surburban roots aren't so far from Coward's. Still, the dialogue is sometimes verbose and the plot silly.
As for the cast, Quentin and Hodge are both on fine, unshowy form, and Steven Pacey is charmingly droll as the Countess's lounging nephew, Peter. One weak link is, regrettably, Rory Bremner, making his stage debut as the grandiloquent Crestwell – a mannered, twitchy performance, though affable enough.
With Conor McPherson's compelling new play, The Night Alive (Donmar, London *****), we're back in Ireland, in the dramatist's native Dublin. Here Tommy (Ciarán Hinds) and his odd-jobbing mate, Doc (Michael McElhatton), are on the skids. Recently divorced and bankrupt, Tommy is living in stupendous squalor, renting a bedsit from his disapproving uncle (Jim Norton). When Tommy saves a scraggy waif (Caoilfhionn Dunne) from a battering – bringing her in off the street – there's trouble ahead, but also unexpectedly profound, unconditional love.
Admittedly, the playwright's self-directed premiere could do with a few textual cuts. Cavils aside, though, this is another triumph, following the Donmar's revival of McPherson's The Weir. The plot is full of startlingly inspired slews, from beer-bellied boogieing to terrifying, visceral insanity. The whole cast is corking and Hinds – looking like a seedy cowboy with a walrus moustache – is utterly wonderful and astonishingly touching. Surely one of the top performances of the year.
'The Cripple of Inishmaan' to 31 Aug; 'Relative Values' to 29 June and touring to 13 July; 'The Night Alive' to 27 July
The Amen Corner, James Baldwin’s tragicomic gem set in 1950s Harlem, is superbly revived at the National Theatre, London. A bad-boy husband, jazz-band son, and rebellious parishioners mean trouble for a zealous preacher-woman. Great acting and storming gospel choiring. If you missed Kneehigh’s Tristan and Yseult the first time, it’s back and touring, the lovers literally flying high at Truro’s Hall for Cornwall (Tue-Sat).