The Lonesome West
Gaiety Theatre, Dublin
“We shouldn’t laugh”. This proclamation, uttered between brothers Coleman (Denis Conway) and Valeen (Frankie McCafferty), draws the audience of The Lonesome West into Martin McDonagh’s original joke. We shouldn’t be laughing, but… we are.
Ever since Christy Mahon bludgeoned his father with a loy in Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World(1907), Irish audiences have had a soft spot for the macabrely funny. We are still laughing along in 2022, however, there is a sense in this production that McDonagh’s dark humour is timing out.
First produced back in 1997, the play now sits in the perhaps unenviable position of being a little irrelevant without being far enough removed from the Irish psyche to benefit from a comfortable nostalgia. Thanks to the performances of a talented cast, most of McDonagh’s writing still feels sharp, and regular unguarded nods to a bleaker time on this island balance out the levity with some good old-fashioned misery.
This production suffers from a slight crisis in its direction. A disjointed first half gives way to more fluidity in the second, but the play lacks the necessary cohesion needed to deliver McDonagh’s signature style of tragedy-tinged comedy.
There are more than a few moments where The Lonesome West feels on unsteady ground. The not-so-casual racism thrown around by Coleman and Valeen no longer amuses as it would have done 20 years ago, and rightly so. There is an opportunity to highlight this generational slippage, but bafflingly it’s still played for laughs. The result is audible discomfort.
The set, designed by Jamie Vartan, supports the slightly off-kilter realism of the play’s world. The pitch of the farmhouse roof sits eerily and tomb-like amid the expanse of the Gaiety’s proscenium arch and the smoky sky conjures up an almost mythical Connemara landscape.
A particularly intimate exchange between Girleen (Zara Devlin) and Father Welsh (Art Campion) in the second half reminds the audience of why we might not need to consign The Leenane Trilogy to the annals of history just yet.
Devlin’s tense innocence offers up the opportunity for nuance that is hiding just underneath the production’s surface. Nestled in the glow of Ciaran Bagnall’s ghostly lighting design, the lonely reality of McDonagh’s Leenane comes into full focus.
Although The Lonesome West continues to entertain, this production’s relevance feels just out of reach.
Runs until March 19th