Theatre: Mild-mannered malice

JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK DONMAR WAREHOUSE LONDON

TOWARDS THE end of Sean O'Casey's masterpiece, Juno and the Paycock, the young Mary Boyle, who has been impregnated and abandoned by her fair- weather lover, bewails the fact that the baby will lack a father. Her mother, Juno, that icon of exhausted yet indomitable female endurance, hugs her and replies that "It'll have what's far better, it'll have two mothers..." This is no rhetorical flourish. On the men front, Juno knows what she's talking about, having had to support an incorrigibly feckless husband, and now mourning a son who's been killed for betraying a comrade in the hideous IRA-Free State violence of the early-1920s.

That gender division - the hard-working compassion and large-spiritedness of the women versus the narrow ideological hatreds and/or sheer shiftlessness of the men - might feel simplistic if Juno were played with any hint of heroics. But in John Crowley's lucid, if slightly underpowered, production, Dearbhla Molloy turns in a fine, gently understated and steadfastly unsentimental performance. As she prosaically traipses about her business in Rae Smith's crumbling Dublin tenement, this actress shows you that it's Juno's weary down-to-earth pragmatism that is so valuable a counterweight to the so-called principles of the men.

Crowley's well-tempered account does not have the scathing revisionist zeal of Joe Dowling's celebrated Dublin Gate Theatre production which stressed the moral viciousness lurking behind the loveable-rogue facade of Juno's strutting, workshy husband "Captain" Boyle and his parasitic drinking crony, Joxer. But there are some lovely milder strokes. For example, at the party the Boyle's throw on the strength of their illusory legacy, Ms Molloy and Renee Weldon's excellent Mary sing a duet in a rendition which is delightfully absurd and touching as the pair of them harmonise precariously at the extreme ends of their range and cast shy, demure smiles at their guests. It's a funny-poignant foretaste of that solidarity between mother and daughter that will be all they have left in the barren, beautifully evoked bleakness of their eventual fate.

There is no such saving togetherness among the menfolk. Critics have sometimes likened the drunken final scene between the "Captain" and Joxer to the comic desolateness of the double acts in Beckett. But this is an insult to Beckett's symbiotic duos, who maintain loyalty of a kind to each other. Twitching with a repellent mixture of nerves and chronic bad faith, Ron Cook's Joxer darts around like a panic-stricken rat intent on nothing but survival, and he seethes with suppressed hatred of Colm Meaney's strapping, nicely dim-witted Captain.

He and Cook may not project all the malign vitality there is in this pervertedly Shakespearean combo, but you'll never forget the authentically ghastly moment at the end, when Cook's Joxer, true to form, has sufficient presence of mind to pull off a complicated drunken balancing-act in order to bend down and pocket the dropped last sixpence in the world of his insensible friend.

To 6 November (0171-369 1732)

A version of this review appeared in later editions of Tuesday's paper

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