Poignant performances in black comedy at Coventry theatre

The Cripple of Inishmaan, Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon. On until Saturday (May 19). Box office: 024 7667 5175.

MARTIN McDonagh’s black comedy The Cripple of Inishmaan is set on the Aran island of Inishmaan at the time of the filming of the real-life documentary Man of Aran. Billy, the title character, sees the filming as a chance to escape the monotony and ignorance of his home.

Where the film romanticises rugged islanders, living off their own sweat and toil, the play gives a more down-to-earth view of the folk, their backwater ignorance and their reliance on gossip for for news and entertainment. McDonagh is not above taking swipes at the Hollywood stereotypes of Irishness: “They had me singing the fecking ‘Croppy Boy’,” Billy chortles as he recounts his screen test.

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The first half seemed slow and somewhat jittery - the amount of repetition in dialogue made the play almost a Craggy Island parody of Music Hall. However, after the interval the pace picked up and the story unfolded with twists and misdirections, both comic and sad, as the initially two-dimensional characters on stage developed additional layers of complexity.

My favourite scene was when the nonplussed islanders were assembled on stage, watching the famous ‘shark hunt’ sequence from Man of Aran, baffled by the film version of their own supposed way of life.

Elliot Relton-Williams gave an assured, poignant performance as Billy, while I was never quite sure whether his aunts possessed some homely, rustic wisdom or were merely a pair of daft old ladies, nattering in a shop.

The island’s gossip, Johnnypateenmike, infuriated and amused in equal measure and there were some superb comic interchanges with his alcoholic mother. Babbybobby simmered with suppressed violence and Helen snapped at the heels of the rest with the relentless bored spite of an intelligent girl stuck on a backward island.

At times funny, at times disturbing, The Cripple of Inishmaan is well worth a visit.

Verdict: a funny, unsentimental take on isolated island life.

Dan McKeown

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