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A CurtainUp London London Review
Juno and the Paycock

It's nearly time we had a little less respect for the dead, an' a little more regard for the living. — Juno Boyle
Ronan Raftery as Johnny Boyle and Sinead Cusack as Juno Boyle
(Photo: Mark Douet)
The National Theatre and The Abbey Theatre (Ireland's National Theatre) have come together for the first time with a co-production that must have taken great consideration to ensure that neither side of the Irish Sea felt excluded. The cultural bias comes down heavily on the Irish side with a fine selection of Irish actors, and a gritty play from Dublin's revered Sean O'Casey.

That's not to say Juno and the Paycock is a flag-waving example of patriotism, the carefully drawn characters in this family on the edge of poverty and sanity expose the best and worst of family life in the Irish Civil War of the 1920s. The historical context and the heavy accent, however, may prove a little impenetrable for some stiff-upper lips in the UK.

Jack Boyle (Ciaran Hinds), the patriach of the family, is out of work, drowning his sorrows with a questionable friend – Joxer (Risteárd Cooper). His long-suffering wife Juno (Sinéad Cusack) attempts to hold the family together, making the best of their dilapidated tenement. The vast space of the Lyttleton may suggest a former grandeur of the residence, but programme notes give some shocking figures as to the cramped conditions Dubliners were forced to live in, sometimes 19 families to a house. The set and sound help too, with exposed frames, crumbling masonry, and the consistently ominous booming of footsteps in the hallway – never knowing whether the incoming visitor is friend or foe.

The Boyle son Johnny (Ronan Raftery) lost his arm, and worse, his mind, while fighting for the IRA in the divisive civil war, while daughter Mary (Clare Dunne) is on strike after joining the labour movement. It is Mary who seems to hold out most hope for the future, dating an educated, well-dressed man, but such a feeling of doom pervades the family's situation that as an audience member it is hard to see anything but tragedy ahead, even with the news that the Boyles are about to receive a large inheritance.

In typical Irish style, the tragedy is underscored by wonderfully dark humour, bravely balanced in a grey light by director Howard Davies. Social status is often played upon, with Jack and Joxer on the bottom rung, trying to hide evidence from Juno that they've been eating sausages, which flips when a refined gentleman enters the apartment and Juno is compelled to scrabble around the floor like a madwoman searching for hidden dirty plates with great physical humour. Joxer is an opportunist, who will steal his friends drink and money, but does so with a smile, a song and a dance – literally jumping out the window when times get too tough. Mrs Madigan (Janet Moran) is his female counterpart, flirtatious and rough throughout; but in a defining moment, which underlines the gender differences in the play, she comforts the grieving Juno, whereas Joxer merely steals Jack's last penny.

It's a respectful portrayal of femininity and motherhood, at a time when it was hard for women to have control over their own lives, and Sinead Cusack brings the full force of her acting experience to the difficult role of Juno – providing strength, sensitivity, fear and faith beyond reason. Her final prayer echoes on: "Blessed Virgin, where were you when me darlin' son was riddled with bullets? Sacred Heart o' Jesus, take away our hearts o' stone, and give us hearts o' flesh! Take away this murdherin' hate, an' give us Thine own eternal love!"


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Juno and the Paycock
Written by Sean O'Casey
Directed by Howard Davies

Starring: Sinead Cusack, Ciaran Hinds, Risteárd Cooper, Clare Dunne, Ronan Raftery, Nick Lee, Janet Moran
With: Cornelius Clarke, Kieran Gough, Luke Hayden, Dermot Kerrigan, Gillian McCarthy, Bernadette McKenna, Brian Martin, Kevin Murphy, Sophie Robinson, Eoin Slattery, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor
Design: Bob Crowley
Music: Anna Rice
Sound: Ben Delaney
Lighting: James Farncombe
An Abbey Theatre Dublin co-production
Running time: Two hours 35 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 26th February 2012
Reviewed by Tim Macavoy based on 17th November 2011 performance at The Lyttelton, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)

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