Into The Light
A dark comedy with cartoonish overtones, “A Skull in Connemara,” the second in Martin McDonagh’s Leenane Trilogy, might seem to offer a stark contrast with the Ireland of John Ford’s The Quiet Man. Grey, grim, awash with blood, McDonagh’s rural landscape seethes with undercurrents of violence, be it verbal, emotional, or physical. Yet if McDonagh deals less in reverence and more in ridicule, itself a sort of backhanded compliment, “A Skull in Connemara” still shares as many similarities with Ford’s masterpiece as there are gullible Yanks ready to help an old woman’s retirement plan. With exaggerated characters who dread aspersions and love a good scandal, “A Skull in Connemara” covers similar territory. And in Decadent and Short Comedy Theatre Company’s “A Skull in Connemara” it’s covered in a similar way, with McDonagh’s dark comedy getting brought into the light. Light entertainment that is. And if the broad laughs thin out the blood, they often thin out the experience with something vital getting lost in the trade-off.
In McDonagh's far fetched caper loner, Mick Dowd, drinks his poitín and exhumes bodies from the local cemetery. His bingo loving, cold hating neighbour, Maryjohnny Rafferty, lusting after Mick's poitín, likes to pop in for a neighbourly drop now and again. And to again and again remind Mick he’s never far from suspicion or scandal. When the day comes for Mick to exhume the remains of his wife who died seven years previous in a questionable car accident, the past comes calling in unexpected ways. Standing over the grave with village idiot Mairtin Hanlon, brother of Tom Hanlon, the local Garda, a mystery presents itself that demands both an explanation and retribution.
Under Andrew Flynn’s direction, Tarantino styled violence is married to a Tarantinoesque referencing of 70s culture which comes to underscore this production in a big way, with a sublime segment involving Dana’s All Kinds Of Everything establishing its tone and flavour. Played out in a superlative set by Owen MacCartháigh, deliciously lit by Sinéad McKenna, the end result is less Pulp Fiction and more Carry On Killing, delivering light entertainment that wouldn't be amiss in a 70s variety show. Right down to Carl Kennedy’s sound design, which evokes The Addams Family or Tales of the Unexpected. The end result is a production that deals well in broad comedy strokes, but not so well when it tries to shift its larger-than-life, cartoon characters back into a realist frame with real feelings and concerns.
Due in no small measure to Jarlath Tivnan’s hugely entertaining, and exaggerated performance of the over sensitive, over the top, village idiot Mairtin. If we’re endeared at times by the self obsessed, loud mouth with a heart there somewhere, he's always a cartoon character played for laughs. Similarly, a delightful Patrick Ryan as the worlds worse wannabe detective, Garda Thomas Hanlon, whose self serving incompetence would look right at home in Porridge. Its left to an excellent Maria McDermottroe, along with an impressive Pat Shortt, to ground and anchor the production into something more substantial than a Benny Hill sketch. Indeed, the contrast between the Hanlon brothers routines and McDermottroe’s subtle, yet hilariously acidic Maryjohnny, and Shortt’s wonderfully understated Mick, highlights the poles at either end of the comedic spectrum, with Shortt often seeming to be playing the equivalent to a straight man in a Max Sennett comedy. Yet while the exaggerated cartoonish may generate some obvious laughs, and certainly fits well with much of the drunken, high octane second-half, it risks striking the same note throughout. More importantly, when McDonagh’s darker and painfully human ingredients try present themselves, as in the final image, the effect is less than convincing.
If McDonagh’s script can be a tightrope to walk, “A Skull in Connemara” makes it choice and places itself firmly in the realm of cartoonish, light entertainment. Which many will surely enjoy. Others, used to McDonagh’s deeply human undertones, which an impressive Shortt beautifully hints at in places, may find it a less satisfying option. Either way, “A Skull in Connemara” delivers hi-energy laughs by the bucket load.
“A Skull in Connemara” by Martin McDonagh, produced by Decadent and Short Comedy Theatre Company, runs at The Olympia until September 1
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