“Never tired o’ lookin’ for a rest”
When the National Theatre open their booking periods, there is normally a mad scramble to pick up the cheap £12 tickets and so my default position has generally been to take a punt on most, if not every show that comes up, without really considering how much I actually want to see the plays. Increasingly though, I am coming to realise that the rush for a bargain really shouldn’t override my instincts about whether I will enjoy a play or not: it may seem like common sense to most people but to a theatre addict, this is a big step. Which is all leading up to me telling you that I left Juno and the Paycock at the interval.
The play in question was lauded as one of the best 100 plays of the last century and an Irish classic – this is a co-production with the Abbey Theatre, Ireland where it premiered last month (this was the final preview here) – with Howard Davies directing and a cast including Sinéad Cusack and Ciarán Hinds, so one would have assumed it was something of a safe bet. But if I’m honest, the prospect of this play never really stirred any excitement in me and the way the first two acts played out left me completely cold and so I made the very rare (for me) decision to make a quick exit.
As the title says, this shouldn’t be treated as a review but as this is my theatregoing diary, I don’t like to leave anything out. So I’ll just give a few thoughts on what it was about the production that I didn’t like and feel free to let me know if the second half would have redeemed it for me. The blurb calls it “a devastating portrait of wasted potential in a Dublin torn apart by the chaos of the Irish Civil War, 1922” and Sean O’Casey’s play follows the Boyle family as they variously try to navigate their way through, and hopefully out of, an unremittingly bleak working class existence – an unexpected inheritance providing a hopeful ray of light for them.
First off, it looks completely wrong from the off. Many people had an opinion about Bunny Christie’s design of a Glasgow tenement building for Men Should Weep but I really liked it and it made an effective, if impressionistic, attempt to portray something of the unrelenting claustrophobia of living in such impoverished circumstances. Here though, Bob Crowley’s design of a Dublin tenement is more reminiscent of the crumbling palatial feel of one of Davies’ previous NT shows The White Guard, the cast often feel lost on the full wide stage which portrays their living area with doors to extra rooms just in case it wasn’t big enough.
Anna Rice’s overly chirpy music may as well be accompanying an Irish tourist advert and to further compound the comedy ‘Oirish’ feel is a set of performances that rarely suggest the hard desperation of living on the breadline. Only a few actors managed to balance both sides of the word ‘tragicomic’, from what I saw, Sinéad Cusack’s matriarch trying to hold everything together emerged as the best for me. As the interval came, I found that I was not at all invested in the travails of this family nor particularly interested in finding out what would happen to them, so I cut my losses.
Lastly and most perversely, I wasn’t even in the cheap seats as I foolishly delegated booking responsibilities to someone else 😉 so I had the unusual (for me) perspective of sitting in row G of the Lyttelton circle. It wasn’t as bad as I feared it would be, though lip-reading from that distance was something of a trial, and I was helped by several performers delivering bombastic vocal performances that must have been challenging from up close. So a disappointment for me but then I kind of knew it wasn’t going to be my kettle of fish: I just need to learn not to book for everything now…