What is it with Daniel Radcliffe and livestock? The erstwhile Harry Potter made his stage debut as a horse-blinding teen in 2007’s ‘Equus’; now he’s back as a disabled lad who stares blankly at cattle in Michael Grandage’s revival of Martin ‘In Bruges’ McDonagh’s lovably astringent 1996 comedy.
Fanatical fans of the boy wizard may conceivably be disappointed – this is an ensemble piece, and though Radcliffe acquits himself solidly, he doesn’t dominate. Surrounded by a first rate, full throttle Irish cast, he’s a sweet, pale presence as Cripple Billy, the titular deformed lad living in a shithole island village in ‘30s Ireland.
Mercilessly patronised by even those that like him, he hates the miserable life mapped out for him – and is given an unlikely chance to escape it when a Hollywood film crew turns up at a neighbouring island.
With his laboured, painful movements, Radcliffe does a good, committed job with the physical stuff. His accent is okay, too – convincing if not full of conviction. But his sad, dignified performance conveys Billy’s outsiderdom well – like Harry Potter and Alan Strang in Equus, Billy is a little boy lost in an adult world.
A really fucking dreadful adult world: there’s not a person on Inishmaan who doesn’t say or think something appalling at some point or other, usually at the expense of poor Billy who, over the course of the play, finds himself robbed, beaten up, romantically rejected and worse.
But McDonagh – with his mastery of caustic dialogue – has drawn such weird, funny characters, inhabited with such verve by Grandage’s cast that this black comedy comes across as strangely celebratory of rural misery. Sarah Greene is wonderful as potty-mouthed local beauty Helen, ferocious, vivacious and winning as a self-absorbed young woman who spends most of her time throwing eggs at people who’ve crossed her. In a strong ensemble, she’s matched by Pat Shortt, wonderful as the scruple-free village bore Johnnypateenmike.
Grandage directs it in his usual effortless fashion, binding the action with a sort of smooth, dark whimsy that stops the humour becoming overegged. Christopher Oram’s rotating set gathers all the action into the centre of the stage, nicely fostering a sense of intimacy.
‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’ isn’t quite McDonagh at his most jaw-droppingly brutal. But that is exactly why this loopy, unsentimental satire on romantic rural Ireland is such a smart choice for the West End – however you feel about its star, this is a top-notch comedy.
By Andrzej Lukowski