The Cripple of Inishmaan is a classic dark comedy. Dark comedy is a genre that has grown quite popular over time, but it is not easy to do. For one thing, at the centre of dark comedy is taking grim, often tragic, material and making the audience laugh at it. This will naturally put off some audiences from the get-go. After all, a lot of the time, these are very sensitive issues. And then, of course, there is the question of balance. This is especially true for plays like this one, because it is not merely a dark comedy but often goes into the territory of drama. So the question is: when do you want the audience to laugh? When should they cry? And when should they do a little of both? Fortunately, The Cripple of Inishmaan provides a perfect balance due to both a fantastic script by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh and an amazing cast that expertly carries the twisted story.
The first thing that has to be talked about is the set. This is another fantastic set provided by Donald C. Watt, whose set in Freak Winds was so wonderful. Here, he provides a wider set that conveys the feeling of the Irish moors. The set can also be easily turned around in order to change between the major areas in the play. What makes the set great is that it looks both very homey and also very dirty-looking. It perfectly captures the conflict going on in the title characters soul.
The script is, in a word, brilliant. It tells the story of Billy, a physically disabled young man who is tired of his stifled life on the Isle of Inishmore. He feels stifled by his loving aunts who always worry about him because of his condition. When he hears about a film being made about the Aran Islands by an American filmmaker, he jumps at the chance to escape his environment. In dark comedy, it is very easy to make all the characters unsympathetic and to rely on their humorous potential to make the audience like them. Here, every character has a mixture of good and bad qualities. Even Johnypateenmike, who initially appear to be funny but unsympathetic, eventually reveals a good side, and even Babbybobby Bennett, who appears to be brooding but harmless, reveals a darker nature. Only the simple-minded Bartley is devoid of any major darkness beyond one scene, where after persistant bullying from his older sister, he loses his temper. Late in the play, Billy says “There are many round here just as crippled as me, only it isn’t on the outside it shows.”
The cast is absolutely fantastic. Billy is played by Roy Neilson, who adds a depth of anger to the role. It would be easy to play off the character as just a pitiable pushover with no self-esteem. Neilson, however, does portray these elements of the character, but he also portrays the characters very real anger, feelings of isolation, his odd wounded pride, and his intelligence. Another brilliant thing about his performance is just how good he is at showing his character’s disability. Although I knew Neilson didn’t really have a disability, I forgot this when I watched the play. There is a scene where he appears to have a seizure and I watched, with stunned fascination, my mouth hanging open in shock, because it didn’t look fake at all, it looked like the actor himself was actually having a seizure.
Another great performance is given by Charlotte Courage as Slippy Helen, the foul-mouthed hellion that Billy is attracted to. The character is extremely belligerent, violent, prideful, and even cruel. What makes Courage’s performance so impressive is that she makes the character extremely likable. There is a certain charisma that is required for this character to work otherwise she is totally unlikable. The charisma and charm she brings to the role make the character seem fun and charming, as opposed to just nasty.
Hellen’s simple-minded brother Bartley is played by the wonderful Graham Rudge. What makes this performance so strong is the pure childlike joy he brings to it. At one part, in which the cast is changing the set between scenes, he moves a piece of set and he gives a look of pure glee and pride at what they’ve done. It’s such a small moment, but it really shows a lot about the character. Another great scene is one where he is waiting for one of the Aunts and is bored. His attempts to entertain himself are truly wonderful to see.
Billy’s two aunts are played by two of the greatest actresses in Whitehorse, Mary Sloan and Bronwyn Jones. The two have been forced into the role of surrogate mothers to Billy. Both of them do a great job showing the deep, abiding love and the constant worry that they feel for Billy. Despite these similarities, the two characters are very different. Aunt Kate is a little bit more talkative, to begin with. Also, a major difference with her character is that she is much less stable, relying on Billy to centre her life. She talks to stones whenever stress is too much for her. Jones does a great job of conveying the more businesslike and loving side to her character as well as her mental instability. Aunt Eileen is much more solid and stable. She also worries about Billy, but she is far more willing to see his negative side or to scold him. Sloan does a great job of portraying both the energy and love that has kept the character going all this time, as well the constant worry that she has gone through since Billy came into her life. While it is still true that she is loves Billy, she is clearly much more exasperated by him and several of the other strange characters than her sister is, and she is much more willing to call Billy out for his actions.
One of the standout performances is Mike Ivens as Johnnypateenmike, the island’s gossip, who delivers all the news on the island. Evans does a great job at portraying the character’s glee at the rumours he spreads, his testiness when he can’t get the things he wants, and his bitterness at his mother’s continued survival. Despite all of the character’s flaws, Ivens plays the role with a charm that makes the Johnnypateenmike lovable. The character has a softer side that only really shows up towards the end, but because of the performance, it doesn’t feel weird or contrived that we now sympathize with him.
His alcoholic mother is played by Dorothy Martin, who does a great job of both portraying the characters dry wit while also doing a fantastic job of playing a drunk old woman.
Kevin Kennedy does a great job portraying the eternally pleasant but also thoroughly frustrated doctor. He makes a great straight man to the other characters’ weirdness and actually gets one of the funniest lines in the play. He really conveys both the characters kindness and humanity.
Babbybobby Bennett, the melancholy bruiser fisherman, who takes Billy to the island where the film is being shot, is played superbly by David Paquet. He really gets across the characters brooding nature and makes the character seem very gentle, while also making the characters capacity for violence very clear. His interactions with Billy are particularly strong because of they highlight both his best and worst traits.
The cripple of Inishmaan is a clever, well-written play with great characters and fantastic performances from the actors.