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A CurtainUp London Review
The Cripple of Inishmaan
Inspired by the real life documentary The Man of Aran filmed by Robert Flaherty in the 1930s, The Cripple of Inishmaan is about an American film crew casting local people in the movie. Billy, an orphan and with a withered arm and a leg that he cannot bend at the knee, lives in the local shop with his two eccentric, adopted aunts, Kate and Eileen Osbourne (Ingrid Craigie and Gillian Hanna). The shop sells tins of peas, and eggs when they can get them from the eggman.
Kate talks to stones and Billy seems to spend his life looking at cows. There is plenty of local colour when Johnnypateenmike (Pat Shortt) calls to pass on local gossip and wild tales about sheep with no ears in return for some shop produce. Wild child, Slippy Helen McCormick (Sally Greene) with her flowing auburn curls torments Billy and anyone else she can pelt with eggs or verbal abuse. A lesson in English-Irish history is delivered to her brother Bartley (Conoie MacNeill) in egg cracking style. No wonder there are days when the shop has no eggs!
McDonagh's Ireland is a parody of the outsider's romantic view of the Emerald Isle with its myth and storytelling, poteen and harsh living from the land and sea. The play has resonances for me of Synge. Christopher Oram's beautiful sepia photographed stage curtain shows a dry stone wall overlooking the sea and rocks, the noise of the waves lashing the shore and clouds wafting across the sky. This tale of simple country folk takes place in the biddies' shop which reverses to reveal the sea wall and Babbybobby the boatman (Padraic Delaney)'s rowing boat.
We see Bily awkwardly clambering over the wall to the shore where he is determined to get to the film crew auditions and talks Babbybobby into taking him although "cripples are bad luck." The repercussions of this are shocking and disturbing. "What the Devil is a screentest?" asks one of the aunts.
The second act opens with the screening against a hessian backdrop on the island of The Man of Aran, which brings the villagers to blows with each other as they argue about the film while it is showing. We cut to a lonely bed sitting room where Billy is alone and coughing his guts up.
Daniel Radcliffe's Irish accent was fine for me and he is enormously sympathetic as the poor orphaned, cripple boy. Although we may laugh at the monstrous language, the humour never detracts from caring about what happens to Billy and whether he will ever get to kiss a girl. The tale about his parents both dying is spun by Johnnypateenmike with compassion. As Billy says, "I do wonder if they let cripple boys into Heaven - sure, they'd only go uglifying the place."
Michael Grandage is our finest director and his ensemble performances are tip top. The idiosyncratic aunts are a delight, Johnnypoteenmike's suit shines with grease and grime as do his stories, his 90 year old Mammy (June Watson) is being killed off with poteen and the banter from the appalling Slippy Helen touches on the behaviour of the parish priest.
McDonagh is on the schools' examination syllabus and the night I saw The Cripple of Inishmaan there was a deservedly, rapturous reception for its star. Let us hope that Daniel Radcliffe will inspire a lifetime of attending plays. For Elyse Sommer's review of this play at the Public Theater in New York in 1998 go here.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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