Lyric Hammersmith, London W6
Opened 13 July, 1999

Brendan O'Carroll is in many ways an Irish Billy Connolly: a comedian who does not mince his words, propelled to fame by a single appearance on a respected television show (Parkinson for Connolly, a 1993 edition of The Late Late Show for O'Carroll). O'Carroll, though, has since written novels, plays, radio soaps and even a feature film starring Anjelica Huston. He is immensely popular. On the evidence of this pile of reactionary codswallop, God alone knows why.

O'Carroll writes, directs and stars as Agnes Brown, mother of a feckless bunch of twenty- and thirtysomething misfits, who rules her tastefully wallpapered realm with a rod of iron. Her eldest has just moved back in after a marital tiff, her youngest is about to get married, but the bride is in love with a third brother; brother number four is in a not especially opaque closet, whilst their only sister trains to be a psychologist by attempting a group therapy session with the family.

It is potentially a fine enough comic set-up, and gets plenty of laughs; the thing is, most of the laughs are titters of genteel shock that O'Carroll has taken a mildly smirksome line and inserted the word "fuckin'" into it. I began to keep a tally of the number of laugh lines he gave himself which did not include that or another expletive; by the end of the two-and-a-half-hour show, I had spotted a grand total of five. This sounds as if I were outraged by the number of expletives, when in fact I was merely bewildered that it was the swearing that seemed to be getting the laughs. The audience, on the other hand, were by the end so ready to laugh at anything that they giggled through the climactic mother-daughter sentimentality. After the first few scenes, O'Carroll no longer needed to begin the applause himself in each blackout.

The play exists somewhere between Roddy Doyle-land and the territory of Caroline Aherne's The Royle Family, with a cousin of Les Dawson's Ada in charge. This is also a world in which all gay men are mincing, chittering, limp-wristed caricatures who cannot wait to drag up either in suspenders beneath their velour trews or in a bridesmaid's dress for the wedding; these odious cartoons are less subversive than John Inman, and I will be happy to join any picket line which might be organised in front of the theatre. Not that that many people may cross such a line: even on the press night, the Lyric Hammersmith was, I estimate, little more than one-third full. "My hope tonight is that you have come to have a laugh," remarks O'Carroll in the programme notes; I did, but I'm still waiting.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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