Tricycle Theatre, London NW6
Opened 4 October, 2004

The Tricycle's partnership with Oxford Stage has put the latter company's supremo Dominic Dromgoole behind much of the Irish component of the north-west London theatre's eclectic programme. Within the past year alone, Dromgoole has directed GB Shaw's John Bull's Other Island and produced Kathy Burke's superlative touring production of Brendan Behan's The Quare Fellow. And it's hard to get more definitively Irish-theatrical than one of Sean O'Casey's three great Dublin plays of the 1920s.

In this one, banal poetaster Davoren shares one room of a Dublin tenement with petty huckster Shields. When the rumour spreads that Davoren is an IRA gunman in hiding, he allows the neighbours to fawn, even hearing petitions from them. But then the word spreads to the hated British paramilitary Black and Tans, coincidentally just as Davoren and Shields find they are in fact in possession of a cache of bombs.

O'Casey was feted by the Abbey Theatre, but famously elicited audience riots on occasion. It wasn't just a matter of putting dilapidated Dublin life onstage in all its squalor, but the great talent of lambasting the vainglorious shambles of the Republican cause without for a moment disavowing either the author's or his characters' allegiance thereto. Shields can lay into the incompetence of much of the war of Independence, and Davoren can flagellate them both for the shame of allowing the false heroic image to persist, but as soon as the sadistic Brits burst in there's not an instant's doubt as to where all sympathies lie.

Aidan McArdle is excellently phlegmatic as Davoren: he scarcely reacts to anything except his beloved poetry, until the sudden irruption of real-world matters sets him ineffectually dithering. Frank McCusker likewise avoids turning Shields into a feckless Oirish layabout: he plays him just slobbish and cynical enough, without crossing into excess. A parade of neighbours provide a range of comic flavours from romantic to the verge of outright slapstick, then the mood turns almost on a sixpence to one of menace. As the period in question passes out of living memory (my own mother lived through it) and into pure history, it becomes easier to treat plays like O'Casey's as cartoons, using the grime, the comedy and the sentimentality as primary colours without realising the deeper truths obtained when they are blended together. Dromgoole admirably avoids any such pitfalls, and does justice to both the history and the drama.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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