The boxing ring is a cute metaphor for life. It’s a pitch with no goal, a race track with no winning post; just an arena where you slug it out with the other guy until one of you hits the deck. Live long enough to be a has-been and you end up toes upwards like everyone else.
Lay Me Down Softly is a play about boxing, but it’s also about the human condition. It examines the fluctuating fortunes of young and old as one generation gains the ascendancy over its predecessor. The Irish playwright Billy Roche, best known over here for The Wexford Trilogy, has reworked his 2008 play and directed it himself for this Wexford Arts Centre revival, complete with lived-in sets by Buí Bolg that have been crammed higgledy-piggledy onto the Tricycle’s tiny stage and (to judge from the original production photos) look all the better for it. Bolg’s tumbledown Irish sideshow blends uncannily well with the rope-and-canvas chic of the Kilburn auditorium.
Theo’s booth in Delaney’s Travelling Roadshow has the usual boxing-drama staff: heart-of-gold house manager Lily (Simone Kirby – cynical and sassy but surely too young?), crusty old hired hand Peadar (a nicely lumbering Michael O'Hagan), fading fighter Dean (Anthony Morris, all frustrated energy and bruised dignity) and earnest trainee Junior (Dermot Murphy, who could gangle and gurn for Ireland).
Theo himself is the God of this small world. Gary Lydon plays him magnificently as a shuffling former fighter, flabby with age but still aggressive and needle-sharp: a benevolent bastard who will stop at nothing to protect his kingdom. It takes the arrival of his estranged daughter, Emer – so sweet and vulnerable in Pagan McGrath’s performance – to disturb the close-knit group’s dynamic. In one of the production’s neatest moments, we sniff trouble in Emer the moment she furtively snaffles a second teacake. (Teacake? Eve’s apple more like.)
Lay Me Down Softly is a slight affair at 90 minutes plus a superfluous interval. It’s a talkfest too, ironically so given the play’s all-action environment, and as Billy Roche is no Conor MacPherson the relentless craic becomes wearing. Despite early promise there is little character development, and the lack of a clearly defined dramatic thread makes the eventful finale seem like an afterthought. Nevertheless, it’s pleasant to soak up the vivid sense of location and early ’60s feel that mark this gentle evening of humour, charm and repressed brutality.