Tarry Flynn at the National Theatre

If you want to catch Tarry Flynn in London, you'll have to be quick. This Abbey Theatre production is visiting the National, but only until 29 August 1998.

Adapted by Conall Morrison from Patrick Kavanagh's largely autobiographical novel, Tarry Flynn vividly depicts life in rural Ireland in the 1930s. Tarry, played engagingly by James Kennedy, is something of a misfit amongst the farming community. He has 'something innocent about him that yet looked like badness' and often carries the can for others' mischief.

He is a sensitive soul, who seems a different breed to the rest of his family - a tough-as-nails mother (Pauline Flanagan) and three broad-shouldered and bovver-booted sisters. Indeed, there's no-one else quite like Tarry in the community.

Tarry reads Byron and Madame Bovary, and dreams of romance with Mary Reilly. When we first meet him, Tarry is 27 but has never so much as kissed a girl. When female attention does come his way, he is ill-at-ease, struggling to reconcile his fevered longings with the guilt and inhibition of his upbringing; it is down to his suitors to make the running.

The community of Drumnay is brought to life through some marvellous character acting from the 29-strong cast, who prove equally adept at human and animal incarnations.

The physicality of Tarry's home is established through some stunning choreography. The opening ballet of scything and brawling labourers sets the pace. Cast members rush on and off Francis O'Connor's fairytale set of rolling hills and barn doors, as if dismissing one scene and ushering in the next.

Such physicality brings to the head the dilemma at the heart of the piece - should Tarry let go of his heightened sensibilities and concentrate on farming the land or strive to be 'one of the Christs'?

The play loses some clarity as the second act deepens. Perhaps the excessive physicality of this production takes its toll on cast and audience alike. The idea that Tarry is wrestling with the 'call to leave' Drumnay never comes across as strongly as it might. Indeed, his philosophy that 'any incident, or any act, can carry within it the energy of the imagination' seems to suggest an ability to dig into the mundane and familiar and to find spirituality and satisfaction right there.

The adaptation is maybe a little too much in love with Kavanagh's own poeticism, but that's an understandable folly. There's some cracking dialogue. 'She has hair like an exploded mattress' says Mrs Flynn of good-time-girl May Callan. Gems like this ensure that the overall effect of Tarry Flynn is to sparkle, in spite of a few flaws.

Justin Somper