While it is a source of constant, bang-your-head-on-the-wall frustration that Martin McDonagh’s masterpiece ‘The Pillowman’ is yet to receive the West End revival it patently serves, this will bloody well do in the meantime.
And the emphasis is on the word ‘bloody’. Revived by Michael Grandage after first being seen in 2001, ’The Lieutenant of Inishmore’ is a very funny and stupendously violent dark comedy that plays out a bit like Tarantino directing an episode of ‘Father Ted’. Set in rural Ireland in 1993, it follows Aidan Turner’s hapless INLA psychopath Padraic as he returns to his isolated family home in order to find out what has become of his beloved cat, Wee Thomas.
Padraic’s layabout dad has told his son that Thomas is ill – but in fact the kitty has died under mysterious circumstances. Padraic reacts about as well as can be expected, ie he tries to blow literally everybody’s brains out. But his INLA comrades are getting hacked off with his erratic behaviour and are here to have a little word.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that scabrous ‘Three Billboards…’ writer McDonagh first and foremost wrote the play to amuse himself: one imagines him cackling away whilst piling cartoonish act of violence on cartoonish act of violence. It is gleefulLY nasty – by the end the entire set is bedaubed with blood, body parts and cat corpses.
Not that ‘The Lieutenant of Inishmore’ lacks purpose – it also functions as an absolutely brutal satire on the absurdity of sectarian conflict. The reasons why the characters clash are unutterably stupid. When Chris Walley’s brilliantly hapless Davey asks at the end whether it was all pointless or not, it is very apparent that it definitely was – and there is a sort of bleak poetry in the total futility of the play’s events. Whether you want to call the cat a metaphor for religion, the peace process, or just a cat, McDonagh’s subversive intent is pretty undeniable – it’s his gift to show relatively normal people tottering blithely into the abyss.
Making his West End debut, ‘Poldark’ star Turner is terrific as Padraic. I mean, yes, he would surely be the most handsome terrorist to have ever lived, but get past the hunkiness and he is wonderful, perfectly nailing Padraic’s weirdly endearing mix of innocence, zealotry and murderous rage. Remarkably, for a man who we first meet brutally torturing a drug dealer and who will go on to commit several point-blank executions, Turner’s Padraic doesn’t seem to be a particularly nasty person. Everything Padraic does is motivated by a sort of misguided sense of morality, and Turner brings excellent comic timing, intimidating physical heft, and a lost little boy quality to bear. He’s by far the least cynical character in the play – with the possible exception of Charlie Murphy’s excellent Mairead, Davey’s po-faced, gun-obsessed 16-year-old sister.
In a uniformly strong cast, special praise should go to Walley. A virtual newcomer, he is excruciatingly brilliant as the mullet-clad Davey, who meets each new indignity heaped upon him with an impressive mix of resignation and hysteria, both of which somehow conspire to rise in pitch as the show wears on.
Grandage doesn’t direct many comedies these days, but he’s a typically dab hand. He and his team deftly marshal the mounting carnage, and there’s some beautiful work early on in the torture scene, when Brian Martin’s trussed-up dealer James tries to skitter away from Padraic on his hands, almost balletic.
There has been gleeful speculation that ‘The Lieutenant of Inishmore’ might have ‘Poldark’-loving mums reaching for the smelling salts. But actually it’s a smart choice of play for the crossover crowd Turner might bring in, and so much more eventful than most theatre, plus who doesn’t love cats? So long as you’re not even slightly squeamish, it’s as funny a show as you’ll see this year.