Stretching Larry

Theatre Upstairs @ the Plough

Theatre Upstairs @ the Plough

Stretching Larry takes its title from an old anonymously composed Irish traditional ballad from the early nineteenth century called 'The Night Before Larry Was Stretched'. The tune tells the tale of a good lad by the name of Larry who faces being hanged for probably resisting the imperial British forces though the song doesn’t explicitly state this. One of the first utterances the play Stretching Larry greets us with is Anthony Morris as Larry screaming out a verse from the song.

Unlike the Larry of the song, however, the Larry of this short play by Bryan Delaney, is about to hang himself. From his torn and dirty peasant-like clothes we can assume that he has been driven to despair by hardship and exclusion. In a stage set with minimal props, the tree and branch from which Larry intends to do himself in sticks out like a sore thumb. As he is about to jump and finish his wretched life, into this remote rural spot step the visual (and metaphorical) opposites to Larry, Helmut (Frank O’Sullivan) and Nellie (Catherine Eaton).

Dressed in the casual and expensive clothes of the cultured, even artistic imaged individual, Helmut proceeds to lay out an expensive picnic for his beloved Nellie. With slow deliberation and in virtual studied silence Helmut produces various sized exotic sausages and cheeses accompanied by expensive wine to differing suppressed and thrilled reactions from Nellie. The sexual overtones are obvious as the louche couple bite into their choice titbits. Meanwhile, Larry has been suffering in silence on his branch until he can bear no more.

What follows is a debate about territory that Larry seems destined to lose. The picnic scene is something straight out of a Manet painting. This strengthens the strong metaphorical import to the three figures. Indeed, you could say that German Helmut and American Nellie represent the cultures of Europe and America that have appropriated our identity over the past two decades. The two ‘visitors’ have a quaint condescending view of the Irish and Irishness. Yet, as events in this 40-minute drama show, both these cultures have a clinical edge to them which makes them more than happy enough to give Larry and, by corollary, the Irish people enough rope from which to hang ourselves. Larry is all brutish ignorance and atavistic energy; Helmut and Nellie are crafty. In a trope that implies that Irish people now re-enact the stereotypes of a pseudo-culture and identity we mistake for our own, far from wanting to prevent Larry from taking his own life, Nellie and Helmut encourage him to complete what he set out to do.

Karl Shiels’ direction is spot on throughout, especially in the extended silent scene where Helmut and Nellie prepare their decadent lunch. There’s an attention to detail that remains focussed and convincing. The soundtrack of birds whistling in the background reminds us that this is an idyllic rural setting where, however, far from perfect acts will transpire. O’Sullivan’s and Eaton’s performances carry an appropriate balance of insouciance and menace, while Morris’s Larry has great edge and intensity.

What’s most likeable about Stretching Larry is how Bryan Delaney’s text, reinforced by Shiels’ direction to the actors, pushes beyond liberal and politically correct boundaries to ultimately cast a caustic look at middle-classness, the clich├ęd way in which we project and acquire culture, and maybe how these airs and graces of 'culture' can end up strangling real inspiration and identity.

Patrick Brennan was chief theatre critic and arts writer with the Irish Examiner from 1990-2004. He is a journalist and critic and is currently writing a book on the theatre of Tom Murphy.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Stretching Larry by Bryan Delaney

15 February - 13 March, 2010

Produced by Theatre Upstairs @ the Plough
In Theatre Upstairs @ the Plough

Directed by Karl Shiels

Lighting design: Andy Cummings

Stunt work: Paul Burke

With: Anthony Morris, Catherine Eaton and Frank O’Sullivan