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Theatre review: Juno and the Paycock 
5th-Dec-2011 11:43 pm
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Last year in the Lyttelton we had a tale of Glasgow tenements, this year it's the Irish equivalent. Although rather than reuse the Men Should Weep set there's a very different look this time, of a massive front room in a crumbling Georgian mansion in Dublin, with ramshackle partitions creating some kind of privacy. Designer Bob Crowley has really gone to town with the dilapidation lest we should miss the point that these people are poor, with crumbling walls and bulletholes in the windows, as this is 1922 in the middle of the civil war. And for anyone who hadn't realised going in that this was an Irish play, Anna Rice's incidental music lays on the flutes and fiddles with all the subtlety of a Riverdancing leprechaun.

A co-production by the National with its Irish counterpart, the Abbey Theatre, Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock is considered one of the greatest plays of the 20th Century, but in this, my first experience of it, I wasn't sold. There's something rather cold and reverential in Howard Davies' production that doesn't allow us to get invested in the Boyle family, Juno (Sinéad Cusack - there's so many Irish plays in London at the moment there's not enough Cusacks to go round; Niamh remains my favourite though) trying to hold the family together as husband Jack (Ciarán Hinds) avoids work and seeks out the pub, and daughter Mary (Clare Dunn) gets involved with a smooth-talking lawyer; meanwhile the fighting has already severely physically and mentally scarred son Johnny (Ronan Raftery - pretty cute when he's not twitching or muttering to himself.) The play's a tragicomedy and though Hinds has an amusing enough drunken double act with neighbour Joxer (Risteárd Cooper) it's really the sort of thing that just raises a smile, meaning both Ian and I were baffled by the shrieks of hysterical laughter coming from a few audience members. A constant parade of new characters passes through the flat in the first half, not helping the story coalesce into something we might care about when we come back. And perhaps this play created a lot of them in the first place, but there seems to be a collection of stereotypes and predictable events piling up. Going out at the interval, I head a few people say "well, xxx is going to die in the second half, isn't he?" I know a couple of people who left at the interval so in case they were wondering: Yes, he does.

James Farncombe's lighting is also very dim, which does bring across the way these people would have lived, but made me glad I was closer to the stage than I was for the similarly-lit A Woman Killed With Kindness, so didn't have to give myself a headache squinting this time. The high regard Juno and the Paycock is held in makes me think that if another production comes along in ten years time I might give it another go, as perhaps the spark that's missing here is what's needed to make me understand what the big deal is. As for the title, wondering what a "Paycock" is I came up with either (a) a rent boy or (b) a peacock in an Irish accent. I wasn't serious about either but it turns out the latter is in fact the case, Juno frequently describing Jack as one for the way he struts around. And I do mean frequently - what with The Playboy of the Western World, is repeating the title of the play several times in the text a particular feature of Irish plays, like having a mournful singalong before the interval?

Juno and the Paycock by Sean O'Casey is booking until the 26th of February at the National Theatre's Lyttelton.
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