Reviews: Lay Me Down Softly – Peacock Theatre, Dublin
In the way of most boxing stories, Billy Roche’s new play features strutting contenders, washed-up coaches and injured kids with something to prove. Set in the early 1960s, but located less specifically “somewhere in Ireland”, it retains Roche’s warm, gently forlorn depictions of small-town lovers, dreamers and losers, but loosens his usually rooted sense of place and sets the characters adrift as members of a travelling roadshow.
With the Peacock stage handsomely transformed into a scuffed boxing marquee, set designer Ferdia Murphy and lighting designer Paul Keogan conspire to bathe this world in a sepia glow – a natural tone for director Wilson Milam’s nostalgic production. Pitching their tent in any given field, where Barry Ward’s young prizefighter, Dean, will take on “all comers”, it is a man’s world – which means it is endlessly in thrall to women.
Ringmaster Theo (Gary Lydon) may call the shots, but it is his squeeze and co-worker Lily (Aisling O’Sullivan) who is more likely to float and sting. With her milky complexion and peroxide tresses, O’Sullivan matches the look of Marilyn Monroe with the direct manner of a welterweight. And though she happily announces her presence, sniffing the air for “sweat and dust and leather”, Ruth Negga makes the greater stir as new arrival Emer. As Theo’s long-absent daughter, Negga is beautifully unforced, her girlish inquisitiveness prompting Theo and weary coach Peadar (Lalor Roddy) into bitter-sweet remembrance and soft revelation, while capturing the heart of lame young boxer Junior (Joe Doyle).
That dynamic of sexuality and relationships – which tips into comically violent skirmishes in off-stage incidents – is more conspicuously the engine of the play than any overt plot. Like much of Roche’s work, the play’s deeper meaning is hinted at in misty allusions among anecdotes. When Theo recalls rescuing Emer’s mother from her bull-headed brother, negotiating the maze of her home in the process, it lends this fairground huckster the back-story of a Greek hero, and her later abandonment a tragic inevitability.
Further grace notes may involve injured heels and coming saviours, love triangles and endless journeys, but rather than lean heavily on any archetypes, Roche’s references afford a generous humanity to his characters: that every life can have an epic significance.
Though Barry Ward offers us a limber preener in Dean (silhouetted in one lingering moment with the classic allure of Raging Bull ), Milam’s production is more interested in aftermath than action. That’s why we never see a bout, but also why Lalor Roddy’s Peadar, who we are asked to accept as a former boxer, more appealingly resembles a former punching bag. Ultimately urging his young charge to escape this lost world of wash-ups and has-beens, he carries the bruised charm of the play, knowing it is better to be a lover than a fighter after a lifetime spent on the ropes. PETER CRAWLEY