The Cripple of Inishmaan

Daniel Radcliffe makes an assured West End return in the Michael Grandage Company’s third production at the Noel Coward Theatre

Daniel Radcliffe (Billy) and Sarah Greene (Helen McCormick) in The Cripple of Inishmaan
Daniel Radcliffe (Billy) and Sarah Greene (Helen McCormick) in The Cripple of Inishmaan
© Johan Persson

Not even a technical glitch with the house lights – creating front-of-house chaos for half an hour – could prevent Daniel Radcliffe from posting a confident and deeply affecting First Night performance as Martin McDonagh’s crippled Billy, coughing up blood and dreaming of stardom on the island of Inishmaan in 1934.

This revival in the continuing Michael Grandage Company season is the first in London since the National Theatre premiere in 1996, when Nicholas Hytner‘s production of McDonagh’s second play confirmed the arrival of a brilliant new voice, an “Irish” dramatist who could have it both ways, sending up the poetic drama of J M Synge and recreating a black new satirical Synge song of his own.

Perhaps Radcliffe flies a little too close to the mock sentimental heart of the drama, and he seems a little too old for a 17 year-old (though he’s only 23). But he’s created a memorable physical portrait of the limping reject, with a withered arm Richard Crookback might envy, and a fine ear for McDonagh’s vicious rhythms and rubatos.

Only a blind or a backward girl could possibly fall for the poor young fella, observes one of his two aunts, sharply etched by fleshy Gillian Hanna and mournful Ingrid Craigie – she could have been painted by Modigliani – in their forlorn shop stocked with nothing but tins of peas, poor relations of Andy Warhol’s soup cans.

Daniel Radcliffe (Billy)
Daniel Radcliffe (Billy)
© Johan Persson

This in itself creates a nice ironic frisson aimed at the Harry Potter fan club, and signals Radcliffe’s new career strategy of doing the unexpected. Billy wants to join the set of the documentary film about local fishermen being shot on the neighbouring isle of Inishmore; there was just such a documentary filmed, Man of Aran (1934), by Robert Flaherty, and a glimpse of it in the second act yields another strand of comedy as the locals deride the inauthenticity of the “real thing”.

Oddly, Billy is even seen in a dowdy Hollywood motel room where he’s flown to audition, only to be turned down for a blond fella from Fort Lauderdale; better a normal fella who can act crippled than a crippled fella who can’t fecking act at all, he was told.

Political incorrectness runs riot in McDonagh. He’s sandbagged you with the nonsense of the opposite before you regain breath from laughing. I adore all his films, especially In Bruges, and the play the National eventually unearthed, his very first written drama, The Pillowman, is a first play classic on a par with The Birthday Party.

The West End is a better place for this caustic, semi-cruel play which finally disowns its own brutal immorality, thanks to the kindness of Sarah Greene’s hard-swearing village slut, the helpless boobiness of Padraic Delaney’s deeply troubled, over-sensitive boatman and the shining idiocy of Pat Shortt’s gossip-mongering Johnnypateenmike.

That boy is literally a mouthful of a character, and even in his second (performed) play, McDonagh is talkatively referencing his first, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, in the slothful alcoholic figure of Johnnypateenmike’s poteen-swigging old ma, savagely done here by June Watson.

Grandage’s production is hilariously inauthentic in all the right ways, cleverly mounted on Christopher Oram’s revolving wall of grey bricks and beautifully lit by Paule Constable. Radcliffe’s little boy lost grows up rapidly, a surviving version of Ibsen’s Little Eyolf, who wasn’t drowned after all when his parents were, an orphan left with not even one good leg to stand on, so, and a terrible cough coming.

See also: Our interview with Daniel Radcliffe