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Review Round-up: Sheehan Stars as Old Vic Playboy

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A new staging of JM Synge's The Playboy of the Western World opened this week (27 September 2011, previews from 17 September) at the Old Vic Theatre.

Set in a small village on the west coast of County Mayo, the play caused rioting when it was originally performed in Dublin in 1907. It tells the story of lonely dreamer Christy Mahon who takes refuge in Michael Flaherty’s pub, claiming that he has killed his oppressive father. Christy beguiles the locals with his tall and dramatic tale of bravery in the face of danger and becomes an instant hero.

BAFTA nominee Robert Sheehan (Misfits) stars as Christy Mahon alongside Niamh Cusack and Ruth Negga in a production directed by John Crowley.

The Playboy of the Western World runs until 26 November 2011.

Michael Coveney

"… It’s a lovely play, and John Crowley’s Old Vic production doesn’t try for anything fancy with it. In truth, it’s a bit flat in parts, but Sheehan, while he doesn’t have the overlarding comic charm of Cillian Murphy in the role … or the accumulating swagger of Stephen Rea many moons ago, is perfectly beguiling and watchable. And he’s very well matched on the stage with Niamh Cusack’s delightful Widow Quin and Ruth Negga’s brazen Pegeen Mike ... What do we now take from the play … The Playboy of the Western World paints a portrait of someone creating an identity for himself in the misguided credulity of others. Christy’s a nonentity suddenly imbued with a character, living a fantasy life in a community that succumbs to its own need for heroes. No other comedy in our language so beautifully creates, and then punctures, this myth, and it’s wonderfully ironic that two of our newest shooting stars at the high end of the celebrity stakes – Sheehan and Negga – should take up the challenge of reasserting the full value of common humanity in a world spinning out of control, reverberating with political lies and vain boasting."

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"More than 100 years after its premiere, JM Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World (1907) remains a tragicomic marvel and its influence is still exceptionally strong in contemporary Irish theatre … Christy is a most unlikely murderer, a point marvellously made in Robert Sheehan’s gormless, gangling performance, but the acclaim of his new companions puts an unfamiliar swagger in his stride, especially when the spirited daughter of the house, Pegeen Mike, takes a shine to him … Crowley’s production achieves exactly the right blend of darkness and wild humour, greatly helped by the folk singers and musicians who preface each half. I was less persuaded by the need to keep revolving Scott Pask’s fine design of the cheerless pub, the kind of vacuous spectacle that would seem more at home in a musical, but the performances are superb right through the ranks. As well as Sheehan’s shambling anti-hero there is especially fine work from Ruth Negga as a splendidly sexy, terrifyingly vindictive Pegeen Mike and from Niamh Cusack as the wily Widow Quin. This may be a less starry production than the Old Vic’s usual fare, but this fine revival richly deserves success."

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"Youthful and energetic Sheehan is plausible as this cocky, vain, fidgety chancer … Sheehan does not quite capture the full range of possibilities offered by the role, yet he is still striking as this lyrical figure - part peacock, part nerd - who struts and squirms around the stage ... He is talkative and quirky ... John Crowley's production is broad. The humour strays towards the ridiculous, a tendency best embodied by Kevin Trainor's amusing but over-emphatic turn as Shawn, the self-appointed saviour of Pegeen - the combative barmaid who takes Christy's fancy. The results are largely entertaining, and the vividness of Synge's poetic language comes across well, though some will find it obstructively odd. Ruth Negga is excellent as Pegeen. She is blazing and bossy rather than yearningly romantic, conveying the character's frustrations and magnetism. Niamh Cusack suggests an intriguing mixture of nonchalance and hunger ... The ensemble work is bright and Gary Lydon makes a strong impression as a raging grotesque who spoils Christy's rampant self-mythologising. Synge's play caused riots at its Dublin premiere in 1907. That won't happen here. But considering its age, the writing feels remarkably fresh. This interpretation could do with more darkness but it is confident and engaging."

Libby Purves
The Times

"… A master of rhetoric is Christy Mahon, a gangling, laddish Robert Sheehan making an impressive stage debut … He’s the bad boy, a prototype of 20th-century gangster celebrity. There are hints of why parricide might strike a chord in a community resentful of authority, dominated by the Holy Father’s all-powerful priests on one side, and English law and landlords on the other. Actually, Mahon is a fantasist and a coward. Sheehan, directed by the Dublin theatre veteran John Crowley, skilfully shows how adulation makes him grow in false confidence as he woos Pegeen. In a stunning love speech he becomes a different lad from the one who panicked earlier when the fabulous Niamh Cusack as Widow Quin propositioned him, legs akimbo in her big fierce skirt. Wow! Never have the words 'sheep-shearing' been more menacingly sexy. But it has all been a tall tale, a kind of myth. When the father turns up alive and a mass brawl results, it is Pegeen who points out that there is 'a great gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed'. Indeed."

Michael Billington

"Recent London revivals of Synge's 1907 play have tended to treat it as a dark rural tragedy. Refreshingly, John Crowley's new production, which includes a band of itinerant musicians, emphasises its roots in folk-comedy. But, although this is a perfectly creditable revival, it never achieves the right ecstatic quality ... The real joy of Synge's play lies in its language; and that emerges only fitfully in Crowley's production. Robert Sheehan, making his stage debut as Christy, is hardly the 'small, low fellow' the text suggests – more a gangling hobbledehoy transformed by his reputation for parricide. But, while Sheehan conveys Christy's spiritual change, he lacks the verbal self-intoxication and the 'poet's talking' that hypnotises Pegeen. And although Ruth Negga captures both the sturdy capability and ultimate loneliness of Pegeen, even she treats the language with the caution of someone tiptoeing across a room with a precious vase. The best performance comes from Niamh Cusack as the Widow Quin. She presents us with, instead of the customary battleaxe, a seductive predator who is a genuine rival for Christy's affections and who, when listing her accomplishments, makes 'shearing a sheep' sound like a sign of sexual prowess. Kevin Trainor is also first-rate as Pegeen's supposed wooer, combining quivering cowardice with a voice that rings out like a clarion, and Scott Pask has created an excellent set consisting of a stone-walled shebeen that rotates. But, while the evening has its virtues, it will be much improved once the lead actors learn to relish the peculiar Synge-song that gives this play its life."

- Katherine Graham


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