One of the key differences between London and Broadway theatergoers is that Brits don’t applaud the first entrance of a star. But helmer Michael Grandage is taking no chances. He whisks Daniel Radcliffe onstage and into the action so swiftly that audiences barely register his arrival. That’s emblematic of Grandage’s approach to his revival of Martin McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan” which emerges as a riotous evening of first-rate ensemble acting.
McDonagh is a master technician — he can whip up larger-than-life yet convincing characters and situations faster than any of his peers. As he proved in his gleefully misanthropic “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and his other wildly successful portraits of dastardly shenanigans in Irish backwaters, he’s expert at creating laugh-aloud comedy out of private cruelty. But if, to put it mildly, compassion has never been his strong suit, this is his play which most elicits genuine empathy.
That local gossip Johnnypateenmike (ruddy, boldly self-aggrandizing Pat Shortt) can get mileage out of such an earth-shaking event as a squabble over a goose is an indication of the daily level of excitement in 1930s Inishmaan. But although they may — and do — rue the fact that nothing changes, everyone from his heavy-drinking, 90-year-old Mammy (glowering June Watson) to the sisters running the village store is staunchly set in their ways.
The exception to all this is orphaned Billy (Radcliffe) who, thanks to a withered left arm and permanently rigid left leg, is universally referred to as “Crippled Billy,” a nickname he understandably hates. He’s secretly sweet on flinty-hearted “Slippy” Helen (headstrong Sarah Greene) but knows he hasn’t a chance with a girl who happily torments everyone, most especially her hapless dimwit of a younger brother Bartley (Conor MacNeill, sweetly gullible in short trousers and favorite Fair Isle sweater.)
So when a Hollywood film crew pitches up scouting for locations and talent, it’s no surprise to find Billy inveigling fisherman Babbybobby (Padraic Delaney) into making a bid for escape.
McDonagh’s stock-in-trade is to conjure jet-black comedy via fast reversals. Almost every word that comes out a character’s mouth is promptly contradicted or, more gradually, revealed to be less than truthful. The danger of all these reversals of expectations is that characters’ sincerity is progressively devalued. It’s to the production’s immense credit that this cast so generously underscores the comedy with truth.
As doughty Elieen, one of Billy’s adoptive aunts, Gillian Hanna scores particularly highly, using whiplash comic timing that keeps her exasperation and grumpiness as a kind of rolling boil. The affection she and baleful Ingrid Craigie feel for Billy is evident but, kept beneath the surface, it has sentiment without becoming sentimental.
Radcliffe considerably increases his range. Alone amid an echt Irish cast, he pulls off the accent with considerable flair, while his dance training for “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” pays huge dividends in his adroit handling of Billy’s disability. With the technical side under such firm control, he makes Billy unusually brisk, which makes his character’s plight more poignant than if he were to that more shamelessly beg for pity.
Ultimately, the play is too crafty to carry sustained emotion. But, irradiated by Paule Constable’s time-specific lighting of Christopher Oram’s atmospheric and resolutely not-quaint sets, moments of distilled pain register unusually strongly. So much so, that the sudden quiet chill that descends as the aunts discover their loss is startling. It’s a tribute to the unanimity of Grandage’s production, the third and most complete of his five-play West End season thus far.