A Skull in Connemara at the Oldham Coliseum review ****

A Skull in Connemara

Oldham Coliseum, 28th February 2019

Two successive nights. Two revivals of comedies looking at the nature of “Irishness”. Martin McDonagh’s A Skull in Connemara and Marie Jones Stones in His Pockets. Which did the Tourist prefer? McDonagh’s black comedy of course. Bit trickier to get to, train to Manchester, then an admittedly convenient tram to Oldham on a wet and windy evening, vs a 10 minute walk, but effort rewarded.

Thanks in large part to Chris Lawson who is the Acting Artistic Director (an entertaining if accidental play on words) at the Oldham Coliseum, an alumni of the Almeida and was responsible for this revival. Based on his work here, and the intelligent and accessible programme he has devised for this season, an in-house revival of Barney Norris’s Visitors, co-productions of Moira Buffini’s Handbagged and the musical The Hired Man, and touring productions of Approaching Empty (from the Kiln and worth seeing) and Charlotte Keatley’s local, and now global, smash hit My Mother Said I Never Should, if I were the Board of the OC I would give him the permanent job. Good people of Oldham and Greater Manchester I enjoin you to pitch up for any, or all, of these entertainments. You won’t be disappointed. I might join you for Visitors if I can rustle up the train fare.

I have bored you enough before on this site about the genius of Martin McDonagh’s plays so I’ll pipe down this time. Suffice to say A Skull in Connemara, first performed in 1997, was the second of the Leenane trilogy after The Beauty Queen of Leenane and before The Lonesome West and may be gets slightly overlooked compared to its peers, the later plays and the two produced plays in the Aran Islands trilogy, (the first of which, The Cripple of Inishmaan would provide an even more fruitful compassion with Stones in His Pockets – same conceit, Hollywood comes to rural Ireland – and both written in 1996).

Too often the words “black humour” or “black comedy” are the precursor to an entertainment that is neither dark nor funny. Not here though. This is quite literally graveyard humour. There is normally an expanding kaleidoscope of high (Synge and Beckett) and low (cop shows) culture references in MM’s work. Here surely Elsinore and everyone’s favourite, overly literal grave-digger has been transported to the west coast of Ireland. Loner Mick Dowd (John O’Dowd), amongst other things, is tasked each year with digging up and disposing of the skeletons in the local churchyard to make room for new entrants. His wife, who died seven years earlier, is interred there but, when he finally gets to her exhumation, she has disappeared. Bad news, especially when the village rumours is he bumped her off in the first place, so the story goes, for burning his scrambled eggs. He is assisted in his work by the local gobshite Mairtin Hanlon (Liam Heslin), whose chain smoking brother Thomas (Griffin Stevens) just happens to be the bumptious, corrupt local Garda, role models Starsky and Hutch. The cast is rounded off by the Hanlon’s elderly gran, Maryjohnny Rafferty (Jenny Lee), prone, like Mick to a shot of poteen, to tittle-tattle, cheating at bingo and bigotry.

Now for all his playful meta conversions, inversions and reversions (especially in the “fairy-tale plays” and the films), MM knows how to work structure, plot, character and rhythm. With just four characters in an isolated location, turned in on itself, where everyone’s business and history is shared, MM creates even more opportunity than usual to explore the personal dramas and relationships within the world he has created. Little does she know that he knows the she knows …. And then what do we know? All four characters have secrets of a more or less heinous kind.. Though this is still, by MM’s standards, a pretty “straight” play within the overall literal metaphor of “digging up the past”. He does treat us to some of the devices we have come to know and love: moral instability, dark, ironic humour and plot twists but this is gentler than many of the later plays.

Apart from the Tarantino-esque bone crushing scene choreographed to the sound of Dana’s All Kinds of Everything, Mairtin’s juvenile fascination with violence (road deaths, children drowned in slurry, boiling hamsters as well as his description of a bottle attack he perpetrated to revenge a slight oh how. trainers), his head wound and Thomas attempting to strangle Mick. Around this “comic” aggression though is some fairly good-natured verbal sparring, intended to upend “Oirish” stereotypes but not really with the vehemence, subversion and unpredictability of the later plays and films. The ending is satisfying ambiguous. We never find out whether Mick was responsible for his wife’s death but it feels like he might.

Katie Scott’s set, alongside the twilighted lighting design of Stewart Bartlett and resonant sound of Dan Bottomley, and a large helping of dry ice, is largely responsible for conjuring up a sense of chilly mystery and connection with the (Celtic) past. It slips seamlessly between graveyard (with falling crucifix looming out of the shadows) and the interior of Mick’s cottage. John O’Dowd, who was excellent as Jim in ETT’s touring production of Conor McPherson’s The Weir (another play which springs from the same place, not literally mind, as ASIC and Stones in His Pockets and was also premiered in 1997), brings the right tone of bluff pensive inscrutability to Mick and Liam Heslin’s explosive Martin seems unable to rein in his wild, morbid impulses in the face of repeated incomprehension. Griffin Stevens shows Thomas as a man supremely confident in his own inabilities. Jenny Lee understandably seems to take great pleasure in serving up Maryjohnny’s choicer acerbic lines.

Mining MM’s texts too insistently for laughs can play up the cartoonish tone at the expense of the darker overtones and pointed referencing . Not here though. Mr Lawson gets the balance right, the four characters are larger than life but the interplay between them is convincing and the simultaneous mocking and celebration of the form is well observed. I would have preferred the play ran straight through, and a fuller house would have served the cast better, but if this is what a portent of what is to come, in this very friendly space (I managed to get lost, don’t ask), then Manchester theatre-goers have even more to celebrate.

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