An Old Man In A Young Man’s Body
It’s twenty-six years since Co-Motion Theatre Company first premiered “Frank Pig Says Hello” by Pat McCabe as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 1992. A lot can change, and date, in twenty-six years. To “Frank Pig Says Hello’s” credit it has aged remarkably well. The theatrical adaption of Pat McCabe’s novel The Butcher Boy released that same year, which formed the basis for Neil Jordan's remarkable 1996 film of the same name, “Frank Pig Says Hello” challenged an Ireland of the early 90s transitioning into a new-found confidence. If hindsight brings with it 20/20 vision, and not everything panned out as Ireland once hoped, one thing certainly has become more prominent: our increased awareness of mental health issues. Something which repositions our engagement with a work like “Frank Pig Says Hello.” Indeed, Co-Motion Media’s current production seems to insist on it.
In McCabe’s tale of Frank “Piglet” Brady, a young boy growing up in Clones in the 1960s, madness is never far away. Both the institutionalised madness of everyday life, and the madness that can get you institutionalised. With his blood-brother and best friend Joe, Frank finds some momentary relief from his mother's mental health problems, his father's alcoholism, and the town’s everyday insanities. But perhaps it is Frank who has the biggest problem of all. One that, if not recognised and treated, is likely to lead to devastating consequences.
In “Frank Pig Says Hello” Frank's abandonment by the people he cares for most, and who should care for him most, doesn’t instigate his mental health problems so much as aggravate what seems to be a pre-existing condition. We never see Frank in any other way than as being disconnected from the realities that surround him, often with good cause. Even allowing for the often surreal, cartoonish nature of Frank and his world, some brave choices by Darragh Byrne as Frank make for some big asks. Bow legged, bent near double, wearing braces over his orange shirt, hands on hips, Byrne’s Frank often resembles a caricature of a demented old man rather than a problematic young boy, his perma-grin and constant readjusting of his hair looking decidedly geriatric at times. Indeed, it can be hard to connect with Frank the young person when all we see is Frank the old man cartoon, or Frank the problem. Someone who, if they called looking for your child to play with, you probably wouldn't want to let them in either. All of which strikes an uneasy contrast with John D. Ruddy’s lucid, rational, grown-up Frank.
With Frank displaying all of the danger but little of the pathos of that other well know Pig from the 1990s, from Enda Walsh’s 1996 Disco Pigs, sympathy can often be thin on the ground. Key moments, like singing and dancing to Don't Sit Under The Apple Tree, frantically sweeping, scrubbing and baking, or a harrowing moment in a boarding school dorm, allow momentary cracks of light to appear in which we see the boy underneath the schizophrenic and psychotic disconnects. Aside from that we’re left to ask how we respond to someone with mental health issues who doesn't immediately evoke sympathy or love? Yet perhaps that’s the point.
Under Joe O’Byrne's direction, “Frank Pig Says Hello’s” hyper theatrical is wonderfully realised alongside an engaging vaudevillian playfulness, obvious references to Flanagan and Allen aside. While Conleth White’s lighting design saves its best moment till last, a clever move simply and beautifully executed, Robert Ballagh’s hint of a set evokes rather than conjures a sense of time and place. That’s left primarily to two highly theatrical performances by Darragh Byrne and John. D. Ruddy, both utterly mesmerising throughout. Even if Byrne’s Frank hits a caricature groove and stays there, never rising, falling, or deviating, Byrne's striking performance is always magnetic. Indeed, it’s near impossible to take your eyes off him. A hugely impressive John D.Ruddy as the elder Frank and a veritable cast of thousands is also engaging, with the contrast between Ruddy and Byrne establishing something of an uneasy balance.
A theatrical joy, cleverly executed, with two superb, if often conflicting styles of performance, “Frank Pig Says Hello” presents a Frankie Brady some may not immediately recognise, and won’t be to everyone’s taste. Yet whatever one's thoughts in this regards, “Frank Pig Says Hello” is never less than hugely theatrical and wonderfully entertaining.
“Frank Pig Says Hello” by Pat McCabe, presented by Co-Motion Media, runs at the Gaiety Theatre until September 27 before embarking on a national tour.
For more information, visit The Gaiety Theatre or Co-Motion Media