On a small island in Ireland, a young boy dreams of being a film star in Hollywood or at the very least not being called “Cripple” Billy anymore. When an opportunity to escape arrives, Billy takes full advantage, perhaps underestimating the full cost of leaving home.
The characters are the driving force of Martin McDonagh’s script with their colourful personalities and oddities of spirit that shape the narrative’s rolling landscape. From the gossipy Johnny (Laurence Coy) to the town bully Helen (Jane Watt) and her dopey brother Bartley (Josh Anderson) the townspeople form a full picture of rural Ireland in the early 20th century. Their dynamics are carved out over generations of feuds and alliances, as well as petty misunderstandings and the role they’re meant to play like shopkeeper, doctor, egg delivery person, etc. To survive in such an isolated place, there is a hearty history binding everyone together, including the bits of the past that no one likes to acknowledge.
For Billy (William Rees), his role is firmly at the bottom, the last in the pecking order but deserving of the highest pity because he is both disabled and an orphan. The mystery of his parents’ drowning death haunts his daily life, not least because Helen loves to tease him about it. When a film crew arrives on the neighbouring island Inishmore, Billy uses the town’s poor opinion of him to his advantage and attempts to shed his oppressive life for a glamorous Hollywood acting career. In the style of the Irish epic, though, his plan doesn’t pan out and he returns to Inishmaan.
Claudia Barrie’s direction really captures the lyricism of McDonagh’s script with the rambling conversations and repetitive self-mythologizing of the townspeople. There is a delicate balance between the slow build-up humour and the witty one-liners that are placed throughout the story. In particular, Barrie’s atmosphere poised between the bleakness of poverty and isolation and the warmth of community and connection is artfully constructed and maintained.
The ensemble is strong across the board with each actor fulfilling their place within village life. Sisters Eileen and Kate played by Sarah Aubrey and Megan O’Connell are stand-outs as the backbone of Billy’s upbringing but also full and charming characters in their own right. Jude Gibson as Johnny’s ageing alcoholic mother Mammy was a crowd favourite for her sharp tongue and even quicker disavowal of her troublesome son.
Rees plays a surprising title character, pivoting from cheeky to manipulative and back again over the course of the narrative. Billy comes across as largely unsure of himself and, without a comfortable backstory to rely on, he skitters a bit in seeking varying desires. Even as the central figure of The Cripple of Inishmaan, much more of the story happens around Billy, which doesn’t allow much depth in his characterisation. Rees shines most in Billy’s more assertive moments, demonstrating a confident talent not accustomed to meekness.
Set design from Brianna Patrice Russell speaks to the barren landscape of the island with craggy rocks and jutting horizons made out of ripped and textured paper. Assembly and disassembly of the various locations was sometimes tedious but also showed a commitment to mirroring the pace of the text where dialogue repeats and circles with little regard to time efficiency.
There is an element of the epic in The Cripple of Inishmaan with its people shaped over long periods of hardship. But Barrie’s ability to find the humour and provoke authentic performances bolsters a sub-story of love and community that keeps the island trudging along into the future.
The Cripple of Inishmaan is running at the Old Fitz Theatre from July 11th – August 10th