GIVEN that Juno and the Paycock is structured on a pattern of false expectations raised and then dashed, you could be forgiven for walking a trifle warily past all those screaming rave notices for Joe Dowling's account of the play that are decorating the Albery Theatre, where this Dublin Gate production has just touched down. In the event, a tincture of caution does not go amiss, for while this version of the O'Casey classic is undoubtedly a distinguished piece of work, it's also a bit slow and heavy-handed in parts and, though affecting, may well leave your core unstirred - in contrast, say, to Dowling's searing production, last year, of Brian Friel's Faith Healer.
The strengths and weaknesses of the production can be seen in that moment in Act 2 when - in one of those jolting collisions of tone in which the play abounds - the Boyle family's raucous celebration of its supposed inheritance is brought to a temporary, chastened standstill by a visit from Mrs Tancred, an elderly neighbour, on her way out to bury her murdered Republican son. Maternal suffering is, it's true, the spur to compassionate non-sectarian insights in this play, but here the effect is so overdone that Maire Hastings' Mrs Tancred looks, with her sweet sorrow and luminous pallor, to have been positively sanctified by the ordeal. Dowling partly redeems this excess by quietly counterpointing the ethical uplift at the centre of our attention with the behaviour, over in a corner of the room, of Joxer (excellent Mark Lambert), Boyle's derelict, parasitic, two-faced crony. Like a sewer rat, he listens to the old woman as he listens to everybody, his shaggy face twitching and twisting with watchfulness, as if constantly apprehensive he'll miss an opportunity for tactical ingratiation. The concern is 100 per cent fake, the intentness disturbingly pre-moral, as is demonstrated in this production when Joxer, thinking that Mrs Tancred has at last put a sock in it, makes to knock back a surreptitious mug of malt. He is then frozen in the act by the old woman's stirring peroration, beseeching the Sacred Heart to give men hearts of flesh rather than stone. A neat juxtaposition, for to Joxer, who thinks only of his stomach, such talk is meaningless.
Niall Buggy never allows 'Captain' Boyle to become winningly Falstaffian in his self-serving fantasies, nor his resilience to seem much more than pig- headed impercipience. When Anita Reeves's Juno (splendidly moving because not of 'heroic' temper) says that her daughter's baby will have what's far better than a father - two mothers - you could feel the audience itching to cheer. Yet it is reputable Joxer who is central to Dowling's interpretation, a symbol of the poverty that grimly persisted in Dublin through the vicissitudes in civil strife. Hence, Joxer's quite frantic glee when the inheritance fails and the fact that, when they lurch on after their binge at the end, he does not stay with his old crony, but squiffily pockets the last 'solitary tanner' from the floor, and, as a contemptuous parting gesture, spits on Boyle's slumped insensible form.
Continues at the Albery Theatre, London WC2 (071-867 1115).
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