Mark Babych’s swansong as the Octagon Theatre’s Artistic Director is a raucous Irish crowd-pleaser, with a dark edge. Backed by a Pogues filled soundtrack, and depicting a rural and isolated squalor, this is an inspired choice of play to end both the current season, and Babych’s artistic tenure at the building.
It’s Christmas Eve in a desolate Irish village. Whilst angry blind Richard (Peter Dineen) tries to recover from the alcohol-fulled chaos of the previous evening, his brother Sharky (Michael O’Connor) and boozy pal Ivan (Brendan Charleson) make haphazard plans for the festive season. These plans are stalled, however, when local wide-boy Nicky (Leigh Symonds) arrives with the mysterious Mr Lockhart (Fintan McKeown), who is hell-bent on a game of cards.
Conor McPherson’s play dazzled at the National (and subsequently on Broadway) two years ago, and it remains a masterpiece. With its rough-hewn philosophising and genuinely hilarious dialogue, it walks a tightrope between profundity and farce. McPherson also neatly skewers the mythic folklore whimsy of so much canonical Irish drama.
Babych’s production is strong, secure, and swaggers confidently around the space. There are genuine belly laughs here, and Babych also pretty much nails the mysterious sub-plot, with its strange and tense rhythms. Patrick Connellan’s design is an accurate recreation of beta-male living, though the watery imagery is a little heavy-handed. Similarly, Tom Dexter Scott’s lighting tends to over-accentuate the more subtle details at times, which is a shame.
The performances are a mixed bag. Dineen convinces brilliantly as the blind, profane brother, clearly having a whale of a time. Likewise, Charleson’s Ivan is a thoroughly loveable lout. Though accents do wander occasionally, there’s a great bonhomie about the performances, and the players work well together. Sadly, in the play’s pivotal role, McKeown is a little too knowing and overstated, which unbalances the equilibrium of some of the second act.
Nit-picking aside, this remains a truly great play, and this a solid production that’s sure to go down a storm with audiences. On the night I attended, audience members roared their approval at the curtain call.
All told, this is a fitting farewell to Mr Babych after ten years of service. He has headed a team that has turned a venue on the brink of closure into the best producing theatre in the region. Make sure you catch The Seafarer before it, and Mark Babych, sail away into the sunset.