Not Funny Ha-Ha

Rating: 5

The Lieutenant of Inishmore

by Ian Shuttleworth 

ApparentlyAidann Turner’s appearance in Poldark led to an unexpected boom in Google searches for ‘naked scything’. Well, there is nakedness in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, but it’s not Turner’s, though he spends a fair bit of time stripped down to the vest; and there’s not exactly scything, but some sawing... er, sawing up of corpses for easy disposal. Winston Graham’s Cornish saga is much more decorous than Martin McDonagh's play set on one of the Aran Islands.

McDonagh, too, is now hot property after writing and directing Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. But 20-odd years ago he was writing plays that offered caricatures of his ancestral West of Ireland. They’re all at least a bit grotesque, and lieutenant a lot – imagine the Playboy of the Western World given a makeover by Quentin Tarantino.

Put it this way: when we first see turner as Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) paramilitary mad Padraic, he’s about to slice off a drug dealer’s nipple in Dublin but abandons his torture to go back to his old island home where his best friend, a black moggy named Wee Thomas, is ill. That’s ‘ill’ as in ‘it’s had its brains knocked out’. Hhis father and a young glype of a neighbour are trying to cover the whole business up; the neighbour’s tomboy sister has a crush on both Padraic and his psycho version of the republican armed struggle; and a bunch of his INLA comrades have decided that he’s too mad even for them and needs to be decommissioned with extreme prejudice.

There is a lot, and I mean a lot, of blood and guts in this production. The company that makes Kensington Gore stage blood won’t be issuing a profits warning as long as Michael Grandage’s excellently black production is running. in its way, though – and apart from much fruitier language – it’s no more bad taste than lots of Jacobean revenge tragedies  from 400 years ago. It’s just that no one in any of those dramas ever remarked briskly, ‘them corpses won’t be chopping themselves up.’

All the main actors, under Grandage’s direction, switch between frantic and absurdly earnest at the drop of a cat. Will Irvine as the INLA commander has the air of someone who would be chilling anywhere else but is simply out of his depth here. Turner, well, of course. But it’s the central double-act that drive the piece: Denis Conway is an old stager who relishes a part like Padraic’s father, and he’s paired with Chris Walley in his professional début, making fine use of an adolescent yodel in his voice. If you like your comedy as black as Wee Thomas’s pelt, God rest him, this is a treat.

Currently booking until 8 September at the Noël Coward Theatre, London WC2: 0344-482 5138, www.noelcowardtheatre.co.uk 

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