Needless to say, The Playboy of the Western World is a classic, and with that this production is lumbered with the task of living up to that label. John Millington Synge’s play has been knocking around for over a hundred years. That’s a hundred years for people to get to know it and to garner expectation – for times to change and for values and shock factors to dwindle along with it. There is a difficult balance for the cast and creatives to find between reinvention and respect to the original, which is not easy by any stretch of the imagination: a chunk of the audience sits back, arms folded and thinks “go on then, what’s new?” So how is this version of The Playboy of the Western World different? How does it stand out and make its audience see it afresh, or even as relevant?
Well, the truth is it isn’t different, it isn’t particularly fresh and the story hasn’t found itself a new relevance. That said, it is good – solidly and dependably good. The cast are strong: they honour their carefully constructed characters that represent a particular culture but still cover a whole spectrum of people. The narrative remains darkly humorous and incredibly entertaining. The company do Millington Synge complete justice, but they don’t add much more to that.
The play is set in a murky, rural village in County Mayo that is all but ravaged by the boredom of banality. Opportunity and options are scarce and the locals are mud-splattered, inebriated and above all isolated. When Christy Mahon (Ciaran O’Brien) arrives, bedraggled and mysterious, and beguiles them with his story: that he, with a single blow, killed his father. The locals, favouring the new-found excitement over morality, fall over themselves to gain his attention and affections. His returned affection belongs only to his new landlady Pageen (Sophie Dickson), who is betrothed to Shawn Keough (Christopher Logan) and yet is fickle. Christy laps up the hero worship, losing track of himself as holes are blown into his story.
O’Brien and Dickinson’s scenes are by far the most noteworthy. They are fiery, witty and honest. Dickinson’s character has a cold, hard exterior enabling her control over her neighbours, her fiancée and even her father. Christy is her match and O’Brien plays him with an intriguing level of vulnerability, which makes Christy as empathetic as he is charismatic. Logan’s jilted character is probably the strongest, and certainly the funniest. He is a mumbling, blundering idiot, weedy and cowardly with a large heart and a larger wallet. His characterisation is impeccable, never missing the mark or dropping character, which in a production that is a little heavy on the messy over-lapping of lines, well and truly stands out. Natalie Radmall-Quirke’s Widow Quinn is the only performance that jars slightly. It feels slightly indulgent, with misplaced, bellowing emphasis and hammed-up pauses as she gives longing looks into the audience.
All in all, this production of The Playboy of the Western World is a good story, well told. The most prominent error of all is the lack of air conditioning in a stuffed, black room on the hottest day of the year.
The Playboy of the Western World is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until 29 August. For more information and tickets, see the Southwark Playhouse website. Photo: Southwark Playhouse.