Daniel Radcliffe, The Cripple of Inishmaan, and Irish Theatre in London

So tonight I went along to see the revival by the Michael Grandage company of Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan.

I don’t want to say too much about it, firstly because I’ve written so much about Martin McDonagh as it is (including the programme note for this production, I’m proud to say) – and secondly because it was very evident tonight that very few people in the audience were familiar with the play. Given that the plot has so many shocks and surprises, it would be a shame to give too much away.

But I will say that it’s a very enjoyable production, and that it deserves to do well.

Perhaps inevitably, much of the pre-show publicity has focussed on Daniel Radcliffe. I found myself thinking tonight that there are some interesting (if very slight) parallels between the show’s star and the role he’s playing. In the play, the eponymous ‘Cripple’ Billy Claven has an ambivalent attitude towards Hollywood. He idealises it because it offers him the possibility of escape – yet he criticises movies for the way in which they misrepresent the real world, forcing actors to deliver ‘arse-faced’ dialogue. In a similar fashion, Radcliffe’s stardom has been a mixed blessing: the Harry Potter movies have made him one of the most recognisable actors on the planet, but his success in those blockbusters has led some sections of the media – and, in fairness, the public too – to suggest that he still needs to ‘prove himself’ as a serious actor. Some of his recent movies, and of course his West End debut in Equus, have gone a long way towards doing that. But some sceptics remain.

In Ireland, the scepticism has not been about Radcliffe’s acting so much as his accent. One of the points McDonagh makes in Cripple is that Ireland has an unhealthy obsession with how it’s seen abroad – and one example of that anxiety is the undue level of offence caused by the dodgy Irish accents of Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Amy Adams, Julia Roberts, and many, many others. Even today, the Irish Independent is fretting slightly about whether Radcliffe’s accent would be good enough, though it kindly stated that it would surely improve during the run.

Well, let’s just say anyway that Radcliffe’s performance is very good. Again, I don’t want to go into detail but I will say that I was especially impressed by his comic timing: he knew when to wait to allow the audience to laugh, and that’s a trait I’d have expected from a far more experienced stage actor. I often find at opening nights that there’s a tendency for actors to rush through the laughter, partly out of nervousness and partly because the cast still need to find their rhythm with an audience. But in Radcliffe’s performance, he had already worked all of that out. That impressed me.

Oh, and his Irish accent is pretty much flawless.

The production also features some great Irish actors, but I’m especially pleased to see Sarah Greene in the cast as “Slippy” Helen. Greene stole the show in Rough Magic’s Phaedra a few years ago, and was by some distance the best thing about the Abbey’s Alice in Funderland last year. She gives a hugely confident performance here, her head crowned in a fiery red wig that shows that the missing link between the Widow Quinn and McDonagh’s Helen was always Maureen O’Hara from The Quiet Man. My only regret is that it might be a while before we see Greene on an Irish stage again.

One final point. With the opening of The Cripple, there are now three major contemporary Irish plays on in London. In addition to McDonagh’s, we also have Enda Walsh’s book for the musical of Once and Conor McPherson’s new play The Night Alive. It’s been a while since there has been such a strong Irish presence in the West End. That’s good news for terrific Irish actors like Greene and Aidan Kelly (in Once) – not to mention all of the amazing performers in McPherson’s play. But while they haven’t disappeared completely, Irish plays had slightly gone out of fashion in London during the last few years, especially when compared with the 1990s. Could this be the beginning of a change of fortune?

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