The Kings of The Kilburn High Road
Hail to the Kings
Jimmy Murphy’s ‘The Kings of The Kilburn High Road’ is a well-worn tale built around a well-worn formula. Thrust a group of men together, usually in a bar, and usually for a special occasion, let the alcohol flow and watch what happens. Indeed, alcohol is probably one of the most tried, trusted and predictable dramatic devices for getting men, and often women, to drop their guards and say what’s really on their minds. It also allows men to show their often maudlin, sentimental and self-loathing feelings. To even safely shed tears if needs be. Sure everyone knows it was just the drink talking. Since theatre immemorial it’s been done to death. But rarely has it been done better than in Livin’ Dred Theatre Company and Verdant Productions' searing interpretation of Murphy’s ‘The Kings of The Kilburn High Road,’ an extraordinary exploration of the invisible men of the Irish diaspora. Hilarious and heart-breaking, ‘The Kings of The Kilburn High Road’ feels like theatre royalty, directed to near perfection and crowned with five extraordinary performances.
The action takes place during an afternoon and evening back in 2000, in the backroom of an Irish club in Kilburn, London. Here the lads have come to wake the late, lamented Jimmy. Like matadors, they all came to London thirty years before to find fortune and fame, discovering that London is a competitive place and that, like all competitions, there’s usual one winner and an awful lot of losers. The mountains of Mourne might be wistfully missed, but so is the gold on the streets they were promised. Indeed, this wake is not just for Jimmy, but for the lives, promises and opportunities they themselves lost.
Legends in their own minds, they all have something to gripe about. Jap might still think he’s leader of the pack, but he knows the pack don’t follow his lead as much anymore. Even Git doesn't really share Jap’s aspirations about tomorrow, more likely to follow Joe, if he ever turns up to share his whiskey and his wealth. Shay might be the level headed one, but that comes at a heavy cost. As does Maurteen’s drinking or not drinking, with him damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. As the whiskey flows it quickly becomes apparent that whatever it is they’re really waking, it's been buried alive, and it’s digging its way back up to the surface. Blame, bragging and begrudgery reign as secrets are revealed and lies uncovered, before newer lies get told to hold on to the same old story. But who’ll be left to hear it when the whiskey finally runs out?
Under Padraic McIntyre’s superb direction the dated details of Murphy’s script are less inscribed with sentiment and nostalgia and more with the weight and burden of history. We recognise these nostalgic and sentimental men and this place they inhabit, which Kate Moylan’s excellent set and costume designs vividly evoke. Men who drink to forget and call it celebration, displaying their casual racism, violent misogyny and sentimental self-loathing for all to see. A loathing which no amount of hard work or bragging can compensate for. We know them, despise them, yet can’t help but love them all the same. Men vividly portrayed in all their flawed humanity by an incredible ensemble delivering exceptional performances.
Phelim Drew is excellent as the deeply dislikeable, braggart Jap, ensuring Jap never topples into becoming the easy villain of the piece, making sure you always understand his flawed and tragic nature. Charlie Bonner, as the successful Joe, turns in a terrific performance, balanced to perfection, calm and composed when needs be, letting loose with the potency of a killer right hook when called upon. Arthur Riordian’s more level-headed-than-most Shay is wonderfully realised, perfectly pitched in a cleverly understated performance. Seamus O’Rourke's stunning performance as the troubled Maurteen, a gentle yet vicious giant whose alcohol soaked soul takes him to dark places, is truly remarkable. Rounding out this unique ensemble is Malcolm Adams as the runt of the litter, Git. Suffice to say, whatever awards are given this year for best male performance, send them Malcolm Adams way. Subtly suggestive, powerful without overwhelming, Adam's perfectly poised performance is simply out of this world extraordinary, in what is an already extraordinary ensemble performance.
‘The Kings of The Kilburn High Road’ is both history and nostalgia, then and now, laughter and tears. It is a lesson and a memory, and it is cracking good theatre. An outstanding production of an outstanding play, performed and directed to near perfection, ‘The Kings of The Kilburn High Road’ is simply not to be missed.
‘The Kings of The Kilburn High Road’ by Jimmy Murphy, produced by Livin’ Dred Theatre Company and Verdant Productions, runs at The Gaiety Theatre until November 12th
For more information, visit The Gaiety Theatre