The switchback rhythms of Martin McDonagh’s dialogue must present a challenge to any actor. In their lilting, his lines are almost musical, glittering with wicked humour, but they also has a very distinctive cadence – timing is all, a half second either way is all it takes to tip the train from its tracks. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson nailed it in In Bruges. The cast of Michael Grandage’s revival – the third production in his West End season after Privates on Parade and the lacklustre Peter and Alice – hit the mark in places but all too often the tempo feels just a little out, a little off. We’re talking micro-beats here, slivers of seconds, but they still matter.
Daniel Radcliffe plays the title character, Billy Claven, a young orphan known to all on the island of Inishmaan as Cripple Billy. Since his parents drowned in mysterious circumstances, he’s been raised by the two spinsters who run the local shop and is regarded as something of an odd sort, a little bit touched, for he spends his days staring at cows or, worse, reading books; he’s a figure of mockery for most and is constantly teased by the flame-haired, egg-pegging ‘Slippy’ Helen for whom he harbours a soft spot.
This is a real ensemble piece (though you wouldn’t know it from the posters) and McDonagh’s play is as much a portrait of a community, as it is of an individual. The suffocating nature of life on the island, where a fracas between a cat and a goose is deemed worthy of relating by the town gossip, is disrupted by the arrival of film maker Robert Flaherty on the neighbouring Inishmore, to make his seminal early documentary Man of Aran. Billy scents an opportunity to escape and he does all he can to take it.
Radcliffe has clearly given a lot of thought to the physicality of his character. One leg drags stiffly, unbending at the knee, while one hand sits rigid and twisted against his chest; occasionally his good hand brushes lightly against the curled one, as if it’s a source of solace. Though Billy’s movements are awkward and jerky, Radcliffe also brings a sort of youthful determination to the character, both physically – encapsulated in the way he slithers unaided down a rope into the harbour – and in the way he engineers his flight to Hollywood. It may take him longer than most but he gets where he wants to go in the end.
There’s a gentleness and openness to Radcliffe’s performance. It avoids heavy-handed poor-me pathos; his Billy doesn’t revel, nor does he meekly resign himself to the hand life has dealt him. Grandage’s production also features a brilliant double-act between Gillian Hanna and Ingrid Craigie as Billy’s adoptive aunts, who clearly love him despite their sternness. Their sisterly bickering and their quiet despair when Billy leaves are warmly portrayed.
The Cripple of Inishmaan is probably Martin McDonagh’s softest-souled play (though this is very much a relative thing – he still takes rather a lot of pleasure in dangling a little sprig of hope over poor Billy’s head) and Grandage’s production softens it further, humanising the characters rather than making grotesques of them. The play brings a sense of Beckettian repetition to their isolated island world, with its grey days, its sense of time snailing by, its Alpine stacks of tinned peas – which is all Billy’s aunties seem to sell in their shop. McDonagh also plays interesting games with Irish types. There’s thematic overlap with both Marie Jones’ Stones in his Pockets, Flann O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth and even Father Ted, the emergence of Ireland as a cultural product. “Ireland mustn’t be such a bad place if French fellas want to live in Ireland,” Helen says and this refrain echoes through the play as their way of life is fixed, filmed, and sent into the world.
And yet for a play which is so much about representation, there are times when the production seems content to skate on the surface of things. Christopher Oram’s blocky polystyrene set is a case in point and looks a bit like it’s been cobbled together from left over pieces of the one from the Old Vic’s production of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. For all its considerable polish and Radcliffe’s generous, unshowy performance, there are things about the production that don’t quite click. These are mainly small, subtle things but they add up. Helen’s hair is a little bit too bright and lush, the characters’ clothes a little bit too artfully grubby and distressed and while the play does have a heart, its beat is erratic and irregular at best.