The Lonesome West
Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Until July 23
GamePlan & RolePlay
Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Various dates until October 12 & 13 respectively
Reviewed by Mark Brown
Long before Martin McDonagh wrote the screenplay for the acclaimed film In Bruges, he had made his name, on both sides of the Atlantic, with a trio of brilliant, bleak comedies set in rural County Galway, entitled The Leenane Trilogy. It is to the last of the trilogy, The Lonesome West, that Glasgow’s Tron Theatre turns for its latest production.
In the play, McDonagh, like the cosmopolitan Dubliner J M Synge before him, looks upon Ireland’s wild west as an intrigued outsider. The writer depicts warring brothers Coleman and Valene, alcoholic, young priest Father Welsh and miscreant teenager Girleen with a mixture of fascination, affection and horror which is similar to that articulated by Synge in his magnum opus Playboy Of The Western World.
McDonagh also shares Synge’s ear for the profane poetics of an often marginalised people. However, the loosening of public morals in the 90 years between the controversial premiere of Playboy (1907) and the opening of The Lonesome West (1997) allows McDonagh’s play to be the darker, more scabrous of the two. Indeed, The Lonesome West is, arguably, an even more hilarious and affecting satire than its illustrious predecessor.
There is a cartoonishness to McDonagh’s characterisations that is reminiscent of the films of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers. However, there is also an underlying poignancy in the neglect and despair that seem to epitomise the village of Leenane.
It requires actors of great skill and breadth to give expression to this paradox. Director Andy Arnold (who has an excellent track record with modern Irish classics) has assembled a first class cast who nail both the larger-than-life comedy of the play and its tremendous pathos.
David Ganly (who played Father Welsh in the 1997 premiere in Ireland and elsewhere) makes for a superb Valene, the ludicrous, argumentative skinflint who inks the letter V on his statuettes of the saints, thereby denoting his ownership of them; likewise the chairs, the new stove and much else besides. Playing opposite him is fine, Scottish actor Keith Fleming, who performs the role of Coleman with a high-octane combination of combustible menace and farcical intransigence.
Ganly and Fleming are a genuinely grotesque, uproarious double act. They are complemented beautifully by the tremendously funny and emotive performances of Michael Dylan (Father Welsh) and impressive newcomer Kirsty Punton (Girleen).
All of which, like designer Michael Taylor’s appropriately hyper-realistic set, makes Arnold’s production a must-see staging of one of the finest Irish plays of recent times.
“Bleak comedy” is a term that is also, and often, applied to English playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s strangely named 2001 trilogy Damsels In Distress. I say strange because the trilogy, despite its somewhat Victorian title, is an attempt by Ayckbourn to address himself to the modern world.
Pitlochry Festival Theatre (PFT) is presenting all three of the plays during its current summer season. Two of them, GamePlan and RolePlay played as a double-bill last weekend.
Ayckbourn wrote the trilogy with the intention that all three plays be performed by the same seven actors, under the same director, on the same set. So it was when he directed the premieres at his Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough 15 years ago, and so it is at PFT now.
Richard Baron directs the plays on an accurate set (a plush, modern flat in London’s lifeless Docklands development) by Ken Harrison. The cast for all three is comprised of the same seven actors drawn from the theatre’s 2016 ensemble.
In GamePlan, 16-year-old Sorrell (Kirsty MacKay on typically excellent form), faced with the demise of her parents’ company and their marriage, tries to save her Mum and herself from penury by taking to prostitution. In RolePlay, a young couple’s dinner party to announce their engagement to their middle-class parents is gatecrashed by a former lapdancer and her minder, both of whom are unfortunate associates of an extremely violent and unscrupulous boxing promoter.
However, anyone hoping for well-balanced, McDonagh-style dark comedies will be disappointed. Ayckbourn’s starting point for the plays is, as so often, the English drawing room comedy and, in particular, the farce.
Unlike McDonagh’s dramas, Ayckbourn’s address the social issues so lightly as to be almost facetious. In GamePlan, only a brief moment when Sorrell breaks down into tears takes us anywhere close to the emotional and psychological weight of the young woman’s decision. In RolePlay, any implicit commentary on the bigoted beliefs of Derek (the garden centre owner who is father to the would-be bride) is outweighed by Ayckbourn’s constant desire to reassure his audience with well-worn comic formulas and caricatures.
Baron’s productions are, typically of PFT, nicely-crafted and well-acted. However, the plays themselves, despite some undoubted moments of wit, lack the moral weight needed to be the dark, humanistic comedies intended by their author.
For performance dates for GamePlan and RolePlay, visit: pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 17, 2016
© Mark Brown