Theatre: Real men get shot

In January this year I wrote that The Colour of Justice ought to transfer from the Tricycle Theatre in north London to one of the main stages at the Royal National Theatre. And - a mere eight months later - it's good to report that it has. The Colour of Justice is a dramatic reconstruction of one of the major political events of recent years - the Macpherson Inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence. But elsewhere in the theatre, topicality isn't what it was. More often than not, a theatre producer's idea of a news event is to celebrate the fact that someone was born or died a hundred years ago. I can think of no contemporary play that reacts to urgent, topical, political events with the rapidity, not to mention the sheer depth of response, that marks out Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock.

O'Casey's play was first performed at the Abbey Theatre in 1924, and the action takes place in a Dublin tenement room two years earlier, during the Irish Civil War: a recent eight-day battle has left one of O'Casey's fictional characters badly injured. Seventy-seven years later, the fierce distinctions between Fenians, Tans, Free State Soldiers, Civic Guards, Mobilisers, Die-hards and Irregulars cannot carry the charge they did for its first Dublin audience. From this distance, in John Crowley's excellent revival, what strikes us most forcefully is the battle between the sexes. No one could watch Juno and the Paycock today and end up rooting for the guys.

The male characters get in debt, get shot, get drunk, get livid, get the simplest professional tasks wrong, get a girl pregnant and get the hell out of town. The women meanwhile cope, love and grieve. The bleakness that we're left with at the end of this sharp and buoyant production comes - paradoxically - from the strutting vanity of the blokes. Their self- importance makes the play comic and appalling. The men value political, religious or social beliefs above concerns for individual people. "Ireland only half free'll never be at peace," says Johnny, the IRA soldier, in one of the play's most dismal lines, "while she has a son left to pull a trigger."

After the noisy brittleness of his Macbeth with Rufus Sewell, Crowley returns to the more dependable virtues he showed in Shadows, his trilogy of Yeats and Synge one-act plays at the RSC. Rae Smith has designed the Boyles' living room so that it fills the entire stage of the Donmar. It's hard not to think that a modern developer would overlook the cracked cornices, peeling plaster and grimy windows and carve the Donmar's spacious tenement room into four student flats.

But Crowley draws us quickly into this humdrum world of greasy sausages, cups of tay and bottles of stout thanks to his consistently strong cast. To succeed with Juno and the Paycock you need to move between the highs and the lows with the sureness of a roller-coaster. We plunge, for instance, from impromptu dancing to the new gramophone to the sudden appearance of a widowed neighbour with a black shawl mourning the death of her son.

Star Trek regular Colm Meaney gives his impressive "Captain" Jack Boyle a physical stiffness, as if he is now trapped within his own fantasies about his naval career. Ron Cook has as much fun as he should be allowed as Boyle's sidekick, the red-faced, twitchy "Joxer" Daly: if a ferret wore clothes it would probably keep Ron Cook down its trouser leg. Best of all, Dearbhla Molloy's Juno anchors the play with a performance that seems to reach deeper than the writing. The qualities of watchfulness, anxiety and stoicism are not the easiest ones to assert in this company. Crowley's cast matches the vivacity of O'Casey: yes, some of the characters are "characters but there are plenty of "characters" in real life. A sure sign of this cast's impact is that we can't help wondering what happens to the ones that survive when the play ends.

'Juno and the Paycock': Donmar WC2 (0171 369 1732) to 6 November

Juno and the Paycock

Donmar, London

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