The Olympia Theatre stages its second star-studded Enda Walsh play in six months as the Gleeson family throw themselves into an extravaganza of physical theatre.
The play opens with proud Corkman Dinny (Brendan Gleeson) in the living room, matching a hideous yellow tie to his hideous blue suit. In the bathroom of their quietly disintegrating London flat son Blake (Domhnall Gleeson) is shaving his legs. They are both preparing for their day while Dinny’s other son Sean (Brian Gleeson) is out shopping. Once Sean is back, wigs and dresses can be donned, and a ritual can begin: Dinny relates the story of his mother’s funeral and the reading of her will. His sons stand in for all other characters while he plays himself; possibly the sincerity of his interpretation is the reason that every day he wins the acting trophy. But today Sean has stage-managed badly, bringing home a sausage. “It’s just not working without the chicken,” laments Dinny – which made me think of “This chicken is the only real thing here, so I’m going to work with it” – but not only has Sean not supplied the needful props, he’s also accidentally invited an audience…
The Walworth Farce becomes an acting showcase for the Gleesons. Brendan’s charisma is such that he’s able to maintain our sympathy as the overbearing Dinny, despite some horrendous physical abuse where slapstick moments result in real injuries. Brian is the straight man, performing the part of Dinny’s put-upon brother, while in reality he is the quiet, defeated son; horrified at having bungled the shopping, but also excited by the prospect of escaping this life. Domhnall is remarkable, his physicality encompasses sitting with his leg wrapped behind his head, and playing three female characters with three distinct voices (and three different wigs, and, thanks to Velcro, outfits); running from place to place to carry on conversations with himself in different guises. Aside from the manic comedy he also registers the fear Dinny has instilled in his boys of dangerous London – dead bodies waiting to rise up from the footpaths and grab you – and resentful fury when their routine is interrupted by frightfully enthusiastic Tesco assistant Hayley (Leona Allen), luring away Sean.
It’s odd seeing this 2006 play after 2014’s Ballyturk. In both plays manic enacting of absurdist small-town bickering is interrupted by a stranger. Hayley is initially amused, then bored, and finally terrified by the ritual – and, unlike Ballyturk, which remains defiantly oblique, we know that the trio perform the routine because Dinny needs to in order to function; so that her attempts to take Sean away are fraught with danger for both herself and Sean. Walworth is less abstract than Ballyturk. Paul Keogan brightly lights the performance, while reality is subdued and sinister. Alice Power’s set of half-shown walls convincingly depicts a decaying flat: a bathroom with a hole in the wall, a bedroom with a bunk-bed and a ‘dining room’ sign with a coffin laid over two chairs, a kitchen, a sitting room with a curious wheelchair. Yet, when a knife appears, your stomach knots in dread, and you realise that there is no rational way to predict where, or in whom, it will end up by the curtain.
Director Sean Foley’s track record in exuberant, slapstick comedy is a perfect match for Walsh’s mania, but he also brings out these trapped players’ tender desperation, and the almost Pinterish edge that Hayley’s arrival brings to this family dynamic.
The Walworth Farce continues its run at the Olympia Theatre until the 8th of February.