Poignancy of men without women

Boss Grady's Boys Arches Theatre, Glasgow

This is an adroit piece of revival-work by Andy Arnold's Arches Theatre Company, their UK premiere of this decade-old Sebastian Barry drama coming between his Royal Court hit The Steward of Christendom, and his new play Our Lady of Sligo, currently in rehearsal at the National.

It's a typically ambitious venture from a producing house that subsidises itself by doubling as a successful night-club venue, and the production imbues Barry's joyously heart-tugging lyricism with the drama and emotional resonance it merits.

In a marvellously fluid blend of present action, flashback, reminiscence and apparitional dream-sequences, the play tells the story of elderly bachelor brothers Josey and Mick, living together on a remote hill farm on the Cork/ Kerry border - a meagre, 40-acre birthright too small to divide. Their mother having died when they were boys, leaving them to the untender care of their bitter, black-tempered father, they have spent their lives almost entirely apart from women, becoming to one another the closest to spouse and helpmeet each will ever know - while remaining exactly what they are, unschooled men cut from old traditional cloth, and with nary an eddy from any sexual undercurrents to trouble the waters between them.

At once achingly elegiac and richly celebratory, Barry's portrait of their relationship, and the lives and times that have shaped it, endows each character with a subtly distilled eloquence of voice, boldly poetic and heartfelt while never remotely overblown, thanks to its firmly-planted roots in Ireland's musical colloquialisms. Whether in Josey's hilariously extended bedtime prayer, soliciting individual blessings on virtually their entire complement - extant and departed - of friends, relatives, farm animals and worldly goods, or Mick's almost unbearably poignant speculations about the unknown girl he might have married in America, had he been free to emigrate, writer and cast reve al the depths of profundity in these variously simple lives - lives untouched by books or luxuries, yet redolent with an ardent, unashamed love for nature's diurnal panorama and graced with an overriding tenderness.

Not that Barry paints any pastoral idyll; those aforementioned depths also include wells of unexpressed pain, regret and longing, much of it centred on the brothers' half-articulated grief for the female comforts they've been denied, and the guilt-tinged loneliness and frustration that the other cannot assuage, but also piercingly glimpsed in the supporting roles of their parents and neighbouring acquaintances. It's a testament equally to Barry's script and Arnold's production that these multiple dimensions are so eloquently realised, the dialogue gliding between exterior and interior realms with wonderful ease and vividness.

While all eight players acquit themselves with distinction, Bill Hickey and Donncha Crowley's central performances as Josey and Mick are nothing short of inspirational, though in the gentlest, unshowiest sense possible, making rhythm, gesture and silence count for as much as the words themselves, illuminating the power of their mutual compassion with an intensity that repeatedly pricks the eyes and prompts a smile at one and the same moment.

Until 21 March (0141 221 4001), then at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 25-29 March (0131 228 1404)

Sue Wilson

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