When a classroom of children nods agreeably to their teacher’s tale about a boy dismembered by a bogeyman in One Duck’s plucky new comedy, the morale seems to be ‘don’t talk to strangers’ and ‘listen to your parents’. But after the arrival of new teacher Ruby (Katie Honan) to the suspicious town of Skibberceannigh, several versions of how The Poor Little Boy lost his arms come to light. How easily do we nod agreeably to stories, and how often do we challenge them?
Beginning life as an assignment for a devised theatre class taught by École Lecoq alumnus Mikel Murfi (The Last Hotel, Ballyturk), the play has been given considerable legs. Bolted excellently into shape by director Oonagh Murphy and movement director Bryan Burroughs, this rural comedy is set to embark on a thirteen-venue tour.
Murphy strips the stage to make the most of the ensemble’s physicality, maximising brisk scenes such as Ruby’s guided tour of Skibberceannigh – regarded as “the World’s Most Liveable Community” – accompanied by a shifty historian (a shrewd Manus Halligan) and a hearty driver (Lisa Walsh, game for anything). Townspeople brim with pride as they pass local attractions: a statue spouting nutty proverbs (“An apple eaten is an apple less”), a ‘resident spook’ draped and hunched like a hag. Through it all, Honan smiles wide with a polite yet flabbergasted façade.
Not unlike Jane Madden’s farce The Windstealers, another play conceived at The Lir School of Dramatic Art, the influence of Father Ted is undeniable, even if there’s barely a mention of religion. A lot of fun is had in being introduced to the oddball inhabitants of Skibberceannigh, the vast amount of which demand the cast to treble up on roles, sometimes with spectacular self-reflexivity.
During a scene set at a table quiz, Halligan’s moderator announces a draw between winners, before the actor snatches a pair of glasses to adorn an outraged contestant’s uproar (‘WHAT?”) and putting them away to switch back to the cheerful MC. If there are echoes of Craggy Island, Sophie Jo Wasson channels the best of Pauline McLynn in her arch performance as a malevolently polite, motor-mouth landlady.
The play’s set-up as a comedy is so strong, it’s telling that when it tries to strike a serious note it doesn’t stick. Not such a good job has been done in laying ground for emotional scenes such as those with Ruby and The Poor Little Boy (a cunning Colm O’Brien). But not all straight moments feel thin; Finbarr Doyle plays a blinder as an alcoholic father feeling the distance between himself and his daughter.
Impressively, through eliciting laughter, the play ushers us to some hot topics. The circulation of Poor Little Boy stories illustrates how stigma is perpetuated, and health issues are left mystified. To think that the disenfranchised are sacrificed to uphold a certain community image is disturbing but not completely unrealistic. That’s why it’s encouraging to see a new generation of theatre makers test the status quo.
The Poor Little Boy With No Arms was performed at Project Arts Centre, Dublin. For their current programme, click here.