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Review: The Lieutenant of Inishmore (Nöel Coward Theatre)

Martin McDonagh's play, first produced by the RSC, comes to the West End starring Aidan Turner

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Chris Walley (Davey), Aidan Turner (Padraic) and Denis Conway (Donny) in Lieutenant of Inishmore
© Johan Persson

Stewart Lee has a great joke about the state of terrorism today. "It makes you nostalgic, doesn't it, for the good old days of the IRA," he'd say. At least they had the common courtesy to put in a call. "They were gentleman bombers, the finest terrorists this country's ever had."

When Martin McDonagh's jet-black, bloody farce premiered back in 2001, the ink on the Good Friday Agreement was just about dry. Peace seemed to be holding, but how long for, who could say? So the notion of roasting the sh*t out of the IRA must have felt wildly dangerous. Today, The Lieutenant of Inishmore merely seems a bit daft.

The precursor to many an inept McDonagh killer, its protagonist Padraic's a man deemed "too mad" to join the IRA. Signed up with a splinter-group the INLA, he's considering a splinter-splinter-group of his own. We meet him torturing a small-time drug-fiend, strung upside-down for selling dope to Catholic kids. Two toenails down, a nipple up next, he gets a phone call to tell him his beloved cat is not well.

In fact, the mog – 'Wee Thomas' – is dead, and, back in Inishmore, his dad Donny (Denis Conway) and dimwit teen Davey (Chris Walley) are panicking about the prospect of Padraic's return. What follows – from tabbies slicked down with shoe polish to the INLA men knocking at Padraic's door – has the frantic lunacy of a revenge comedy made by Morecambe and Wise. Violence begets violence, the body count mounts; nothing's off-limits and any target's legit. Padraic bombs chip shops and Davey's sister (Charlie Murphy) takes potshots at cows. McDonagh demonstrates the deranged logic that kicks in when terror becomes the norm.

Rather than sending up Padraic's extreme violent tendencies, the flick-switch rages of a man who shoots cats into shreds, Aidan Turner opts to tease out his sweet side. With his bright blue eyes and his ruffle of black curls, he's a good guy at heart; a bucolic soul. He spends most of the play beaming, white teeth on show, even greeting his would-be assassins with a smile. In another life, another world, you could imagine him whistling while watching sheep. Instead, here he is, grating the flesh off some bloke whose stomach he's just shot.

Director Michael Grandage's point is that those raised in violence know nothing else. Terror's a career path; the only life that makes sense. That Turner's Padraic looks like a hybrid of Bond and Bourne, packing twin holsters over a tight white T-shirt and brandishing his revolvers, cross-armed, like a pro, suggests he's imbibed the gun-toting imagery of the big screen. There's a vanity to his violence, all postures and pecs. At moments, he's even outright messianic – and why not? All he wants is a "free Ireland for cats". If anything, he's idealistic, and perhaps you could say the same of so-called IS.

Even so, by today's standards, it all seems a bit tame. By stressing Padraic's virtue and vanity, Turner softens his threat and, on Christopher Oram's somewhat flimsy fake-stone set, with cat corpses that look like bloodied teddy bears, it hasn't the livewire danger to set an audience on edge. Rather than ricocheting around like a firework, Grandage's production's content to go at a caper; too studio sitcom to muster a spark. Conway deadpans down pat as Padraic's dad, Will Irvine's one-eyed hitman finds the stupidity of menace and RADA grad Walley makes a promising goofy debut, but like bin blasts and bomb threats, McDonagh's satire now feels old hat.