”The Walworth Farce” review – new London venue opens with Enda Walsh revival

The Walworth Farce
The Walworth Farce
© David Jensen

“It would never happen on The Waltons” quips tyrannical Irish patriarch Dinny in the midst of taunting and terrorising his sons as they perpetually re-enact scenes from their troubled family history. He’s not wrong. Enda Walsh’s fascinating mixture of trauma, fantasy and jet black comedy was first presented by prestigious Galway-based theatre company Druid in 2006 and now opens Southwark Playhouse’s shiny new Elephant and Castle venue, steps away from where the play is actually set, in a stonkingly well-acted production by Nicky Allpress.

This play is A Lot: imagine the urban gothic twilight of Philip Ridley overlaid with Joe Orton’s subversive epigrammatic brilliance, liberally seasoned with the Hibernian lunacy of TV’s Father Ted, and you’ll be part of the way there. Murderous, deluded Dinny (Dan Skinner) and his deeply damaged sons Sean and Blake (Emmet Byrne and Killian Coyle respectively), who may have witnessed a brutal slaughter while in their infancy, are holed up in a grim council flat high above Walworth Road. Only Sean has any contact with the outside world as he periodically nips out to the local Tesco for provisions. The rest of the time the men play out, using a frenetically choreographed variety of wigs and ramshackle homemade props, the sometimes violent, often hilarious variations on a set of frankly jawdropping situations that led them to this bizarre set-up.

Both Walsh’s writing and Allpress’s staging appear chaotic on the surface – the shaggy dog stories that comprise this dysfunctional family’s history involve stolen money, coffins, a poisoned roast dinner, an unfortunate pet canine impaled on a spike, a dead horse and a motorboat, amongst many other things – but that belies a rigorous discipline and internal logic that impresses and surprises. Allpress engineers an atmosphere of shuddering threat and barely suppressed hysteria tempered with moments of real sweetness, but I do wonder if, running at less than two hours including interval, it might play better without a break. You may find yourself bemused at times, but you’ll never be bored. Walsh’s point seems to be that family ties are all-consuming, even when the family is as bloody awful as this one, and the rollicking comedy eventually gives way to a conclusion that shocks with it’s emotional force. It also makes a persuasive case for the power of storytelling and how fictions can help make bearable the most intolerable of lives.

This sort of material requires a precise, energised sort of tragic clowning, not exactly naturalistic but neither so heightened that it feels divorced from reality, and Allpress’s cast absolutely nails it: despite the scattershot brilliance of much of the material, I doubt it would land as well as it does without a company this good. Dressed, bejewelled and coiffed like a 1970s spiv, Dan Skinner finds rich veins of danger and absurdity in the monstrous Dinny. Emmet Byrne invests Sean with a wide-eyed watchfulness that pierces the heart, and the detail and precision of Killian Coyle’s Blake is quite extraordinary: note the way he is all nervous twitches and tics when being himself but has a bold assuredness when playing a variety of (mostly female) roles, suggesting he is the one most worthy of the makeshift Best Actor Award statuette his father brandishes around like a weapon. Crucially, Byrne and Coyle are completely believable as siblings. Rachelle Diedericks is wonderful as the good-hearted Tesco worker who unexpectedly breezes into Anisha Field’s appropriately dingy set with Sean’s shopping and gets a whole lot more than she bargained for, her innate sunniness giving way to disbelief then blind panic with total conviction.

With a two level auditorium reminiscent of the Donmar and the Park 200, Southwark’s new theatre is larger than its older siblings on the other side of Elephant and Castle, but has a similar funky industrial-meets-artsy aesthetic, and lovely, spacious bar and front of house areas. It is typical of this company’s beloved, slightly off-kilter brand to open their major venue with an in-house production of such a potentially polarising piece. Not everyone will embrace Walsh’s testosterone-fuelled, no holds barred mayhem, but for those who like their plays bold, gory and bracing, The Walworth Farce is a macabre delight… and these adrenalised performances rock.

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The Walworth Farce

Closed: 18 March 2023