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Review Round-up: Walsh\'s Walworth Is No Farce?

Direct from a critically acclaimed run in New York, Dublin-born playwright Enda Walsh’s The Walworth Farce, received its London premiere at the NT’s Cottesloe theatre on Wednesday 24 September. The play, which is set in a flat occupied by three Irish men on the Walworth Road in London, runs at the National until 29 November 2008.

The Druid Theatre Company production, which is directed by Mikel Murfi, had its premiere in Galway in 2006, and has since won a Fringe First when it debuted at Edinburgh last year. The dark comedy stars Garrett Lombard and Tadhg Murphy as two brothers living in a dingy and run down flat near Elephant and Castle with their overbearing father Dinny, played by Denis Conway. Mercy Ojelade completes the cast as the supermarket worker, Hayley.

Walsh’s other plays include Disco Pigs, which appeared at the Tishel Arts Centre in Cork in 1996 and was turned into a film of the same name in 2001, and Chatroom, which first appeared at the National’s Cottesloe Theatre in 2005. Walsh’s second movie, Hunger which was co-written with director Steve McQueen, won the Camera d\'Or prize at Cannes this year and is set to be released in the UK this autumn. Lighting design is from Paul Keogan and set design from Sabine Dargent.

Critics disagreed about the success of Walsh’s play. While the majority applauded the “compelling, uncomfortable work” and the “frightening energy pumping through this writing”, some critics expressed concerns about a lack of emotional depth or revelation in Walsh’s “traumatised characters”. The actors were more succesful, being almost invariably praised, while Sabine Dargent’s design was felt to be a suitably “grotty mess”. Many felt that Mikel Murfi\'s direction was “brilliant”, although Nicholas de Jongh, who stood out for his apparent diapointment in the play in general, felt that it was “chronically boisterous”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “As in Walsh’s break-through play, Disco Pigs, there’s a frightening energy pumping through this writing, here translated into performances of overwhelming force and brutality … the frantic action is like an old Eugene O’Neill vinyl disc played at the wrong speed. The Three Stooges meet Stones in His Pockets with a dash of Joe Orton, Martin McDonagh and a curious reverberation of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming … This heightened sense of cultural displacement is a running theme in the plays of Tom Murphy and Brian Friel, but the intensity of frustration and despair finds a heightened metaphor in this crazy quagmire of submerged identity and role-playing. Sabine Dargent’s design is a riot of cheap furniture and bad taste spread across three adjacent box rooms. The two-hour show is totally exhausting, but the rollercoaster ride is worth it.”
    • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Brilliant as the play and Mikel Murfi\'s Druid Company production are, I long for Walsh\'s characters to engage with the outside world ... You could see the play as a union of Freud and Marx. There is clearly something oedipal about the elder son\'s urge to impersonate his mother and kill his father. Equally, reminding us of what Marx said of history, the family\'s story reappears the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. But I suspect Walsh\'s real target is the Irish propensity to hide disquieting truths behind fanciful myths. ‘What are we if not our stories?’ asks one character. Eventually we learn that Dinny\'s appetite for myth is simply his way of evading hideous reality. It may be a staple theme of Irish drama, but it is here projected with head-spinning verve by Denis Conway as the Cork fabulist, Tadhg Murphy and Garrett Lombard as his two sons, and Mercy Ojelade as the hapless intruder. An intoxicating evening.”
    • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) – “Sadly, I didn’t enjoy Mikel Murfi’s production as much as I did in 2007, though the expatriate patriarch Dinny and his two sons, Sean and Blake, are played by the same excellent actors and Sabine Dargent’s set, a high-rise flat near Elephant & Castle, is still a memorably grotty mess. Maybe that’s because the play-within-a-play that the men endlessly perform is so crazed, confusing and, at times, wearisome that the implausible arrival of a fourth character, a friendly check-out girl from Tesco, feels like dawn after a long night … With Lombard switching from wig to wig and frock to frock as he plays a series of drag roles, and Murphy swapping characters at almost greater speed, the play’s bravura intricacies are often funny. But, boy, is one grateful when Mercy Ojelade’s sweet young cashier appears with the bags that Sean, who is allowed out for shopping, has accidentally left behind … No doubt of it, Walsh is a writer whose every line swaggers with imagination, humour, toughness or all three … But this time his portrait of obsession seems obsessive itself. A bit more light and shade would surely help.”
    • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (one star) – “Take several chunks of Martin McDonagh and stir vigorously into an Anglo-Irish setting. Add in essence of Theatre of the Absurd, slithers of Black Farcical Comedy and two tablespoonfuls of Expressionism. Flavour lavishly with spirit of Joe Ortonand Jean Genet. Drizzle in a touch of déjà vu, Pirandello and gothic nightmare. Serve to gullible Anglo-American audiences, boosting the dish as a feast of hyper-nouvel-cuisine that will linger on palates for days … You may gather why I find it difficult to echo the enthusiastic reception for this Druid Theatre production of Enda Walsh’s The Walworth Farce, seen at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year and recently in New York. Mikel Murfi’s chronically boisterous production remains true to the title with its characterising notes of grotesquerie. Yet a sombre, deadpan style, rather than one redolent of The Three Stooges, would have been more provocative and challenging … Walsh remains boringly intent on making his haunted people farcical crazies. He drags them for no justified reason to a melodramatic finale. Denis Conway’s casual psychopath Dinny, Garrett Lombard’s Blake in various dresses and Tadhg Murphy’s weirdo Sean surprisingly raised much first night laughter.”
    • Sarah Hemming in the Financial Times – “The Irish playwright, Enda Walsh, recently pointed out that the grimly dysfunctional families in his work are actually not that farfetched . But my problem with The Walworth Farce is not implausibility: on the contrary, it is the seriousness of the subject. Black comedy is great for revealing disturbing truths but The Walworth Farce doesn’t offer enough insight into its traumatised characters and so feels sensationalist. Walsh is certainly an original, highly talented writer … It is very cleverly constructed and brilliantly acted in Mikel Murfi’s production for Druid theatre company. Walsh’s play satirises Irish mythologizing, veers from farce to Greek tragedy and echoes Beckett, Orton and Pinter. But, while it demonstrates how people wall themselves up from the truth, the play’s style prevents Walsh from getting any deeper into the unhappy psychological territory he has opened up. The characters seem like playthings. The play picks open a wound, then leaves it: that is what made me feel queasy.”
    • Julie Carpenter in the Daily Express (four stars)– “Whether or not you find the slew of verbal and visual gags funny (I did not), the many disquieting elements that pile up like a motorway crash are enough to keep you hooked on this compelling, uncomfortable work. The cast, part of the Druid theatre company, is superb. With Denis Conway’s explosive, obsessive compulsive Dinny, who switches from exhilaration to violent fury in an instant, you are always on a knife edge. Garrett Lombard, as the agoraphobic Blake, acts out his female roles with gusto, while Tadhg Murphy is devastating as the tormented, meek yet softly mutinous brother Sean. Mercy Ojelade, as the one outsider Hayley, mirrors the audience’s own disbelief when she stumbles uncomprehending into this perverse world when she comes to return the supermarket groceries that Sean, allowed out for this one task, mistakenly leaves behind. What is utterly believable is the egregious psychological damage inflicted on the sons, which leads to the bleak ending. Whether you take the play as a metaphor for the way Ireland mythologises its past, it delivers an emotional flooring purely on this desperate, psychological level.”

      - by Kate Jackson

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