REVIEW: The Playboy Of The Western World

Earlier this year, in a one-off BBC drama called Ups & Downs, writer Eoin Cleland penned that part of being a grown up was "bluffing", implying that those who were best at it were a "force of nature".

That no one, not even the most confident among us, knew what we were doing. Yet it was this very lack of control, of uncertainty avoidance, that made his characters so loveable and unique as human beings. A bit of R & R for what has essentially been a year of B & B – Brexit & Boris. Imagine our astonishment when Oonagh Murphy takes J. M. Synge's script to Belfast's Lyric Theatre and turns the positivity in that mentality right on its head with her production of The Playboy Of The Western World.

Dripping with apathy and wit, in a beautifully structured bar & bedroom setting (more B & B?), the play finds a raw and uneasy power through the art of disconnect, from a group of people who think they have thrived, and can still thrive, in isolation but instead trawl through trauma.

Can it be, Murphy asks, with the aid of her cast, the 1980s setting and Synge's century old prose, that some damage, when done, just cannot be undone? That some cracks cannot be papered over regardless of new found epiphanies and resilience that can only come with experience? It is something we ourselves, in the contemporary political and artistic background, are all too familiar with. We know that chasms have been opened in the last few years that no amount of momentary pleasures will permanently bridge.

Central character Christy Mahon, played with intense sensitivity by Michael Shea, is the epitome of "momentary pleasures" – but strictly on his own terms. The titular playboy is an image, superficially brave but ultimately pathetic. He is created by an aforementioned chasm, open wide by a confession of killing his father (Frankie McCafferty) that creates numerous possibilities and dangers for him, and multiple complications for the Lyric’s audience to gasp and chuckle over. Imagine Ferris Bueller’s best friend Cameron Frye redrawn as a wannabe womaniser, with a darker edge, and you’re not too far off.

It really is all very impressively staged and acted. In particular, I appreciate the comic timing of Michael Condron, Jo Donnelly and Tony Flynn, Aoibheann McCann follows her memorable Blanche Dubois with a wonderfully hard-edged turn as the Widow Quinn, and Eloise Stevenson’s Pegeen Mike is an understatedly unique delight. In satirising the idolised object of worship, Stevenson is balance personified, sarcasm and mischief tied up with enough sweetness and longing to suggest her cloud of independence may be more misty than she thought.

But if there is glee and gumption in Playboy’s scattered flippancy, random pop culture references and cleverness, its very emphasis on pretty surfaces, keeping a distance and a lack of structure is also harmful to its nucleus. It is almost as if bacon fries, scampi fries, peanuts and cheese & onion crisps have been thrown together in the same bag - you know you’ll stumble upon something that looks, feels and tastes the part in the moment, but the appeal melts away before you know it, leaving a bitter aftertaste. Although, come to think of it, that does seem to be the trajectory Murphy is going for, and to her credit, succeeds in attaining - that is to say, a classic lesson for Christy Mahon, Pegeen Mike, the company and the audience in basically thinking before you act, lest you become too hard-edged a cauldron of cynicism to survive or have made one too many mistakes to prosper.

Simon Fallaha

The Playboy Of The Western World, a Lyric Theatre and Dublin Theatre Festival co-production, runs at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival. Photography - Johnny Frazer.

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