The Poor Little Boy With No Arms review: A bright ensemble and a heart of darkness

Skibberceannaigh has many dark secrets; unearthing them proves trickier than imagined

The Poor Little Boy With No Arms

Mill Theatre, Dublin


The chatty people of Skibberceannaigh could certainly tell you some stories. In fact, this almost aggressively pleasant island town seems to make storytelling its primary industry. We begin with a cautionary tale, as a man sternly warns children about a disobedient boy torn limb from limb. When a new schoolteacher arrives, that story multiplies into competing versions: fables and horror stories, myths and true crime narratives. So, what is the story?


Originally devised with Mikel Murfi as a class project at The Lir, and now largely recast and retuned under Oonagh Murphy's supple direction, One Duck's production bears the nostalgic glow of Murfi's work with Barabbas and Macnas 20 years ago, where a bright ensemble well versed in mime and mimicry summon up a gallery of small town Irish caricatures. Under Bryan Burroughs's expert movement direction, the new school teacher, Ruby (Katie Honan), gets a tour of the place, meeting jovial town council members (Manus Halligan), bickering couples (Halligan and Sophie Jo Wasson), comically stooped old women (Lisa Walsh), effete duck feeders, waddling butchers (Finbarr Doyle), and many, many more. But one person is hidden away like a dirty secret: a mysterious adult, with no arms, charged with humiliating tasks – currently picking up dog shit, which presents obvious challenges.

Why is Colm O’Brien’s otherwise gentle figure such a pariah? And where have all the older children gone? And what’s with a council that seems to plot exclusively under torchlight? The job of any good mystery is to ration out clues and decoys; it’s a measured approach to plotting that often eludes group-devised shows. Although over populated, and thus overstretched, this one works hard to tie up loose ends, hopping back in time to draw lines between actions and consequences. It seems more intrigued, though, by what stories do to us: how they justify, delude or control.

That may account for some abrupt leaps in tone, taking as much pleasure in one scene from Doyle’s uncanny impersonation of a baby as a dose of hard swearing, later delighting in the knowing charm of a choreographed romantic montage sequence, before springing a much grubbier plot twist. This is darker terrain, finally, than the good spirit of the performance can safely navigate, and perhaps as a consequence, its own narrative doesn’t resolve as much as dissolve, the truth splintering almost immediately into more legends. That could be a sly point about what compulsive fabulists we are. Arms or no arms, we prefer to leave harsher realities just out of reach.

Touring to Linenhall Arts Centre, Castlebar (Feb 1), Backstage Theatre, Longford (Feb 2), The Dock, Carrick on Shannon (Feb 3), Pavilion Theatre, Co Dublin (Feb 4), Riverbank Arts Centre, Newbridge (Feb 5), Droichead Arts Centre, Drogheda (Feb 6), Birr Theatre (Feb 7)

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about theatre, television and other aspects of culture