Boss Grady's Boys

Tom Hickey and Pat Shortt in Boss Grady's Boys by Sebastian Barry at the Gaiety Theatre. Photo: Jonathan Hession

Tom Hickey and Pat Shortt in Boss Grady's Boys by Sebastian Barry at the Gaiety Theatre. Photo: Jonathan Hession

Sebastian Barry’s Boss Grady’s Boys hearkens back to another time. No, not the time to which the elderly farming brothers Mick (Pat Shortt) and Josie (Tom Hickey) constantly look as they frame their present, dull and empty experience of life with reminiscences of their deceased mother and father. No, not the time when such a breed of rural Irishman could be realistically encountered any day of the week, and when references to Stagecoach and Duck Soup would not be lost on an audience. No. The play hearkens back to another time in Irish theatre: before Martin McDonagh made it de rigeur that any tale of rural dysfunction be delivered more in the manner of Quentin Tarantino than J.M.Synge; when a sombre, serious, poetic, almost downright meditative piece of theatre like Boss Grady’s Boys would find itself at home.

Now, times have changed, there is no doubt, and the densely literate, demanding and multi-layered dialogue delivered with conviction by Pat Shortt as the more self-aware of the two brothers is not easy to unpack. Josie’s eccentricities, rendered without buffoonery by Tom Hickey are not provided to amuse us, but rather startle and disturb our sense of comfort in a way that can’t be sitting altogether well with an audience invited to see the show on the basis of scattered citations of reviews calling it "hilarious". No. Not a lot of hilarity here, it must be said. So much probing, oppressive analysis of the psyche of the lost generation of Irish rural males doomed to bachelorhood on the smallholding of a domineering father whose ambitions did not so much shape his sons and give them nowhere to turn leaves you feeling thoroughly squashed emotionally. It can also be read politically, and here again the play shows its age, with its pointed references to the greatness of the Irish past standing in stark contrast to the world inhabited by those who inherited the legacy of independence. You don’t have to go that way with it though.

Barry’s piece is full of contemplations and ruminations, ideas and images that resonate and linger, though they don’t necessarily all coalesce easily into a digestible experience. Its play in the realm of gender is particularly disturbing, with images of emasculation and domination freely flowing around Josie’s seeming assault on a local girl (Maeve Fitzgerald), now, then, sometime, somewhere in the memory, with his own sense of demasculinsation and disempowerment as an idiot failure who is nonetheless somewhat beloved by a hateful father. Paradox is also something Barry trades heavily in, and in doing so forces the audience to engage with the work as poetry, reflexive and reflective upon itself in ways that require concentration and a will to participate.

That will to participate may be hard to come by. On the night attended by this reviewer, with the rain driving hard on South King Street, pouring through the Gaiety awning as if it wasn’t even there, there was an eerie kind of emptiness in the theatre. Paul Keogan’s set was part of it: a surrealistic expanding of the cramped space of an Irish cottage into a kind of desert canyon with vast open spaces filled with nothing but distance. Yes there were people in the theatre, but not that many, and some seemed to be befuddled tourists expecting a rollicking stage-Irish laugh-a-thon and not quite sure why they couldn’t even force themselves to chuckle. Jim Culleton’s direction is as merciless as Barry’s script - never allowing the poker face to crack or a raised eyebrow to break the sense of doom that prevails on stage.

Tom Hickey and Pat Shortt in 'Boss Grady's Boys': Photo: Jonathan HessionAll of the cast are good in maintaining this sense of sobriety and purpose. Even the ‘comic’ ribald elements are played with the high drama tone of Garry Hynes doing John B. Keane. Shortt is very good with a character that has more subtlety and range than you might expect. Hickey is never less than in control of what seems a loose-fancied character. Paul Keogan’s lighting ensures no brightness permeates this dark world, and even the screening of fifteen minutes or so of Duck Soup during the interval seemed more a Dadaistic challenge to the routines of theatre-going - am I supposed to move or what? Do I sit here and watch one of the funniest, most confrontationally satirical American films ever made, or do I head to the bar? Though the play concludes with slow motion footage from Stagecoach, its image of the wild west both a symbolic signifier of distance and difference between one West and another, but also a realistic reminder of the viewing habits of the rural Irish, it is Duck Soup, with all its surealistic subversive insanity that tells us how to behave: “If you don’t like it, you can leave in a huff. If that’s too soon you can leave in a minute and a huff.”

Dr Harvey O'Brien

  • Review
  • Theatre

Boss Grady's Boys by Sebastian Barry

2 - 11 Sept, 2010

Produced by Noel Pearson
In the Gaiety Theate, Dublin

Directed by Jim Culleton

Set and Lighting Design: Paul Keogan

Costume Design: Leonore McDonagh

Sound Design: Denis Clohessy

With: Pat Shortt, Tom Hickey, Mary Murray, Don Wycherley, Maria McDermottroe, Gina Moxley, Donagh Deeney, Maeve Fitzgerald