One of the best things about Enda Walsh’s 90-minute Penelope, directed by Mikel Murfi for Druid at the Hampstead Theatre, is its apparent lunacy. A chap in red speedos in a drained swimming pool is trying to grill a tiny sausage. He’s also trying to seduce the patient and ever faithful Penelope on the day that Odysseus is at last returning from his adventures.

This sad loser Quinn (Karl Sheils) is just one of four suitors for whom time, and the Irish economy, is running out. It’s hot, they’re bored, and the speechless Penelope (Olga Wehrly) is drifting around upstairs, untouchable in a provocative turquoise cocktail dress, and none of them has quite cracked the right sort of seductive speech.

We hear these speeches in a cascade of vivacious language delivered at high speed in a sauna-like temperature. It’s 33 degrees: that’s hotter than the beach in Tel Aviv in high summer. There’s the old suitor Fitz (played with succulent fervour in an orange tan by the wonderful Niall Buggy), the urban savage with an idea of his own ridiculous attractiveness (Denis Conway), and the sulky little street boy desperado (Aaron Monaghan) banging his head against the wall with a party cap on.

It’s all about words, a heady brew of post-Beckettian existentialist flam and flummery, beautifully expressed, splendidly articulated, until it’s all blown apart by an outrageous quick-change cabaret act by Shiels trying on the roles of Napoleon, Scarlett O’Hara and Jackie Kennedy in a pink pillbox hat for size in a mesmeric and unexpected virtuoso turn.

The play, as it was in Edinburgh, where it was premiered during last year’s festival at the Traverse, is too enigmatic and opaque for its own good, but it is vivaciously theatrical, much more so than I realised before, and the acting is absolutely wonderful, though I noticed that Denis Conway stops acting when he’s merely listening in the last five minutes.

Liven up, Denis! And take a leaf out of Niall Buggy’s book, who seems to be feeling every syllable of the closing speech as it falls on yet more stony ground and sums up the helpless condition of men doomed to failure and extinction as the conquering hero returns.

- Michael Coveney



NOTE: The following THREE STAR review dates from August 2010, and this production's premiere at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

The patient Penelope, wife to the travelling Odysseus, has long been a figure of fantasy in contemporary drama.

Coruscating Irish playwright Enda Walsh turns the myth round to show us four of her rejected suitors bickering on the brink of death in a heated swimming pool.

And by heated, I mean sweltering. The water’s been drained away and these four losers gradually conform to stereotype on the day of the big chief’s return.

Penelope, enigmatically embodied by a speechless, gorgeous Olga Wehrly in a turquoise cocktail dress, hovers above in mocking isolation, encased behind glass screens.

The four suitors in Mikel Murfi’s Druid production each has a big “moment”, seized with relish: Niall Buggy as the older Fitz, Denis Conway as the urban savage, Karl Shiels as the show-off in red briefs and Tadhg Murphy as the young desperado.

It’s a good play, but too enigmatic and opaque, rather like Penelope herself.