THEATRE / Island life: Paul Taylor on Playboy of the Western World at the Birmingham Rep

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The Playboy of the Western World is based on such a sturdy dramatic idea that it can survive endless repetition, cultural transplantation (to the West Indies, among other spots), or use as the model for quite independent works. Synge, a raw, nave lad who finds that a reputation for patricide does wonders for his sex appeal, resurfaced earlier this year in Daniel Magee's fine play Paddywhack. He took the shape of a Northern Irish youth who goes to England to find work and sets up in a London lodging house during a time of IRA mainland bombings.

The assumption that he's a Republican activist proves erotically stimulating to the female protagonist, a right-on PhD student weary of liberal impotence. From there, though, play and model diverge: whereas Magee uses the situation to explore prejudiced reactions to the Irish, Playboy was regarded by its first audiences, rightly or wrongly, as constituting just such a prejudiced reaction.

More importantly, though, Magee's hero remains essentially unchanged by the experience of living under false pretences. In Synge's comedy, by contrast, the insignificant Christie is eventually transformed by the adventure into the force for which he has been mistaken.

At the Birmingham Rep, Anthony Clark's enjoyable Playboy revival has its work cut out making the play look fully at home on an epic stage. Bunny Christie's design tries to fill in the cavernous spaces by wedging the thatch- roofed shebeen in like some vast, precipitous ski-slope. It was as though a set for Playboy had suddenly materialised, Tardis-like, at the Winter Olympics, so that when the crowd of villagers watch Christie at the off- stage sports, you wonder why on earth they are miming the movements of horse-racing.

Most of the performances are skilfully scaled, however. Perhaps Niamh Linehan as Pegeen slightly overdoes the banked-down hysteria and becomes too cartoon-like when turning termagant. On the other hand, when this Pegeen reproves Christie with the line: 'I'm not odd, and I'm my whole life with my father only', you realise that, of course, odd is exactly what she is and that it's her own frustrations from living this way that make a patricide uncommonly appealing to her. As Christie, J D Kelleher expertly progresses from frightened, innocent whelp to a man who can live up to his inflated publicity, with some very funny phases in between where he is not exactly either.

Playing Pegeen's fiancee and Christie's rival, Sean Cranitch is wonderfully squawking and spineless, the sort of neutered Irish man who is perpetually in a panic about what the priest will think. With fewer worries in that department, delightful Carol Macready as the experienced, fuller-figure Widow Quin is about the nearest this peasant village gets to a Mae West figure, though that's still not within spitting distance. Hardly surprising, either, in a society where it's seen as a wonderful culinary recommendation that a chicken has been run over by the curate's car.

They seem to have a kink about bloody heads at the Birmingham Rep. First there was Gerard Murphy hauling a huge chunk of bleeding brain out of his own skull in the recent Atheist's Tragedy. Now we have Christie's spade- clobbered dad revealing a head wound that looks like some intermediate stage in major brain surgery. It would be a rash actress who'd agree to play Mary Queen of Scots at this address.