“You’ve buggered him to skitter!” delights a young man, watching his colleague smash the skeletonised remains of town locals with a mallet. This outlandish sight isn’t out of place in Leenane, Martin McDonagh’s bleakly insular vision of Galway populated by pioneering gravediggers, alcoholic priests and corrupt police.
Fewer know their way around these parts than Decadent Theatre, who have committed to producing most of McDonagh’s work. Director Andrew Flynn’s 2013 production of A Skull in Connemara, brought back as coproduction with Short Comedy Theatre, will likely draw new audiences in the wake of the writer’s award-winning screenplay Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. What they’ll find is some rich elaboration on a sharp parody; surreal performances inside Leenane, Galway.
There’s a gravedigger, Mick (Pat Shortt), whose solution to a packed cemetery is darkly genius and unlawful. He exhumes corpses that are long since decomposed and dumps them in the lake, making room for new plots. Mairtin (Jarlath Tivnan), a young man obsessed with death and atrocity, becomes the accomplice in this ingenious caper. There’s also something personal at stake; they’re closing in on the grave of Mick’s dead wife.
Flynn knows well that exaggerated stagings of McDonagh’s plays work best. Taking inspiration from storybooks, the cracked cottage walls of Owen MacCartháigh’s excellent set will collapse to reveal a pop-up cemetery. Here, it’s no coincidence that Mairtin and a conceited police officer (Patrick Ryan) hover on high ground like shoulder devils, urging Mick to confess some part in his wife’s death.
For the most part, the production leans into these heavy strokes. Maria McDermottroe’s burlesque of a god-fearing old woman, always arriving thirsty, snarls thrillingly between polite discussions about the weather and gleeful attacks on the locals. Ryan’s police officer, flexible as a cartoon, is convinced that the most trivial deaths in town are unsolved mysteries. Supplying most of the energy is the compelling Jarlath Tivnan, his affected and loquacious Mairtin as morbid as a ghoul.
It’s a shame that Shortt’s Mick doesn’t always rise up to meet the rest of the cast. Made aware that the town treats him with suspicion, he becomes sullenly still, as if the role could be mined for something more serious. But this razor-sharp production does find its stride in the second half, when the actor returns with his hair shook, ready for a bone-shattering bloodbath. That’s the best kind of visit to Leenane.
A Skull in Connemara is on until 1 September 2018 at Olympia Theatre. Click here for more details.