Nick Le Mesurier reviews The Cripple of Inishmaan, directed by Vanessa Comer at the Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford
They’re a funny lot on the island of Inishmaan. There’s hardly a sin that any one of them would not commit. But for all that, they’re a lovable bunch, and you can’t deny that the craic is good.
The premise is simple. An American film crew has come to the neighbouring island of Aran to make a film. That film is the actual fictionalised documentary, Man of Aran, which was directed by Robert J Flaherty and released in 1934. Their arrival stirs the locals on Inishmaan into hoping there might be something in it for them as extras, or even as film stars. But they’re prisoners as much of their own inward-looking rivalries as they are of their poverty. They bicker and squabble over everything and drive each other mad if not to drink – or more likely both. The butt of most of their jokes is ‘Cripple’ Billy Claven (Nathan Brown), a young man disabled from birth, brighter than the lot of them but always held back by his love / hate relationship with the island and by ‘Slippy’ Helen McCormick (Sophie Mobberley), the local beauty with a tongue as sharp as her looks.
In a play so full of characters the cast must work as one if it is to succeed at all, for a single flaw will diminish the whole. Fortunately, there are no such flaws. Every part of this hilarious, tragic performance is on tip-top form. You’ll laugh as you weep for the plight of poor Billy. You’ll anticipate with relish the arrival of gossip-monger Johnnypateenmike O’Dougal (Paul Tomlinson). You’ll wonder at the resilience of his mother Mammy O’Dougal (Dorothy Barlow), whom he keeps trying to poison with whiskey, though she seems to thrive on it. You’ll smile at the antics of the sisters Eileen and Kate Osbourne (Niki Baldwin and Viv Tomlinson), one of whom talks to stones and the other keeps tins of peas stacked in her shop as if she were anticipating a shortage. Then there’s Bartley McCormick (Thomas Hodge), whose yearning for sweets is matched only by his desire for a telescope – though what he wants to look at is anyone’s guess. The only half decent ones among them are the doctor (David Derrington) who knows the truth about them all, and Babbybobby Bennet (Graham Buckingham-Underhill) the boatman who takes pity on Billy, just once, and that because of a lie.
The ending is tragic because it comes so close to hope. Before you get there, however, you’ll fall in love with these folk, whose venality is equalled only by their wit and by the pathos of their situation, and with the brilliant production of one of the Bear Pit Company’s best plays to date.