The Lonesome West by Martin McDonagh

At the outset of his punchy play, London Irishman, Broadway darling and black-humour’s lodestar Martin McDonagh might have some of theatre’s denizens believing that Irish country life is cruel, heartless, and still entirely peopled by hessian-suited farmers, frustrated priests and lusty colleens. Further into this exuberant co-production of The Lonesome West however, it becomes clear through McDonagh’s linguistic japes rollicking around the script that the entire work is not much more than a mischievously satirical cartoon with very few sacred kows to tow to.

On their family farm, two brutalised brothers (the "Kings of Odd") attempt to disarm each other both literally and figuratively. Occasionally but incompetently policed by the disillusioned priest and buxom teen, no holds are barred and no dig dirty enough: no one out-does nastiness as this contemporary Cain and Abel from Leenane. It is the world of Kavanagh’s ‘Epic’ but littered with explosive stoves, McCoy’s crinkled-cut crisps, lyrical expletives and perverse Synge-like twists of syntax.

By locating his action in a fantasy West, McDonagh distances the play sufficiently from modern-day civilisation to allow him the licence to get away with jokes about sex, Catholicism, the bucolic archetype and, indeed, a clatter of stand-up gags that would have another comedian blacklisted by a platoon of PC police. Sketch in expletives, violence, alcoholism, suicide and populist (particularly post Ryan Report) digs at the clergy, and McDonagh completes his portrait of Connemara as a microcosm of a dysfunctional world.

Such a common literary device works well when the audience and analogous situation are miles apart. To those in London and New York theatres, the West portrayed here is a far-off dystopia or twilight zone where clearly anything goes, and so this dramatised cartoon hits its mark. However, playing in Galway, where the distance is removed, the message shifts into uncomfortable zones. Of all McDonagh’s plays, The Lonesome West seems to be the one that most closely echoes Irish issues (family, the land, sexual repression, a celibate priesthood), so some audiences miss the point if they insist that McDonagh really believes that the country abutting Ireland’s cities hides such delinquents: an almost entirely cruel and bigoted breed of blackguard.

Director Andrew Flynn has assembled a cast who relish the physicality of language, character and action. John Olohan is a suitably brawny Coleman and Michael McElhatton is his intriguingly effete brother Valene whose pathetic vanity in this show is both a comic and also a faintly tragic counterpoint to Coleman’s violence. The characters’ increasingly sadistic tête-à-têtes shows off these two experienced performers making the most of a hearty script without over playing it. Samantha Heaney is an earthy Girleen who understands the tension created by her flirting with a clergyman: Owen McDonnell’s sympathetic and straight portrayal of a riven priest.

Owen Mac Cárthaigh designs an odd set for an odd play. Two cottage facades of Quiet Man Hollywood realism confront each other across the stage. Suspended dead centre, a single light bulb lights a kitchen table in the farmyard. A vast, shiny corrugated tin backdrop, more alien drawbridge than steely Connemara sky, counters the quaintness downstage. It is as if Mac Cárthaigh has disembowelled the cottages, exposing their viscera much as McDonagh does with his characters. Then there is also his trade-mark attention to detail exemplified when posters of Starsky and Hutch are briefly glimpsed tacked onto the back of Valene’s door. Davey Dummingam provides eminently smashable and occasionally luminous figurines and Mike Reagan’s bright red SFX stove works well in every possible way. Even Colm Hogan’s carefully constructed poster photograph reflects the solidity of this production.

Perhaps Flynn’s sensible direction doesn’t really attempt to bring enormous ‘meaning’ to the play, but he may be right: there isn’t a lot there, perhaps, bar the wonderfully swaggering language and the schlock tactics of the drama, and this is something that Flynn deals with faithfully. What the team does respect, enjoy and draw out is that McDonagh delights in, and makes poetry of, the ugliness of life.
  • Review
  • Theatre

The Lonesome West by Martin McDonagh

11 - 19 Sept (Galway) and on tour

Produced by Cork Opera House and Town Hall Theatre
In Town Hall Theatre, Galway

Directed by Andrew Flynn

Set design: Owen Mac Cárthaigh

Lighting design: Andrew Fitzsimmons

Sound design: Jack Crawley

Costume design: Petra Bhreatnach

With: Michael McElhatton, John Olohan, Owen McDonnell, Samantha Heaney