The amount of laughter coming from my Row K seat last week at The Cripple of Inishmaan was plentiful. Now open at the Cort Theatre, Martin McDonagh’s play spares no expense as everyone in this small town passes the time dissatisfied and throwing shade at anyone that stumbles into their collective crosshairs (in the case of Cripple Billy Claven, I mean “stumbling” in the literal sense).
On the surface, Inishmaan is about Billy wanting to escape his belittled existence at home, so when a Hollywood film comes to the Aran Islands looking for a new recruit, Billy jumps at the chance. But the show, at its heart, is more of a melancholy exercise with how the Irish deal with other people’s misfortunate - laugh about it! But the laughter is a smokescreen for the vulnerabilities that are bound to plague anyone and even the sharp-tongued town of Inishmaan is not immune. McDonagh’s language feels authentic in that way only an Irish text can get away with - you could practically taste the cruelty leaping off of the stage amidst all of your excessive laughter, followed up with a side-dish of “awwwwww."
That would be Michael Grandage’s cue to knock Inishmaan out of the park, wringing McDonagh’s words for as many laughs as possible in a play that could be constricted with its dark set-up. But now that I’ve seen this show rendered with Grandage's “oh, lighten up” approach, I can’t picture this story unfolding in any other way. Even its quieter, thought-provoking, heartfelt moments are consistent within this universe. Grandage really knew what he is doing and he eases the audience’s conscience a little…especially when jokes are flying around about how Billy’s only chance at love is with a blind girl. And Christopher Oram’s rotating sets, the Inishmaan ones in particular, are full-stop appropriate, like he took them directly from some Sepia-toned photos found in the attic of some Ireland-born person.
What makes Daniel Radcliffe such a stand-out is that he’s not really funny. I know that’s a backhanded compliment, but hear me out - his Billy is the down-on-his-luck, disabled introvert, hoping for a better...*something* in his life, but is conditioned to expect disappointment. McDonagh’s writing is geared towards laughing at him rather then with him, so it is up to Radcliffe to bring the emotional arc and a hero to root for in the story. It’s not exactly an enviable position with the scenery-chewing, peanut gallery a few paces away, but that is EXACTLY what he does - limping and acting his ass off.
Initially, Radcliffe disappears into the background in the first act, but watch his performance ascend once the spotlight lingers over to him. When Billy is stranded in a decrepit hotel room in Hollywood, looking like he’s knocking on death’s door, Radcliffe is perfectly dramatic without going overboard with the coughing fits and wheezing. It was him doing a textbook Shakespeareian-esque monologue, by the way of the McDonagh, and the whole thing just clicked into place.
Some gems are found in the supporting cast as well. Ingrid Craigie and Gillian Hanna, playing Billy’s caretakers, Kate and Eileen, are bluntly hysterical in that Absolutely Fabulous kind of dynamic. When they ramble on and on, you will listen on and on because they are a hoot together, even when their despair settles in (one of the old broods starts talking to a rock!). And June Watson, playing an elderly women confined to a bed and/or wheelchair, may only be on stage in a few scenes, but she’s a treasure as she is force-fed booze (her son is trying to kill her off, LOLZ!) and subsequently, spouts her mouth off without a single fuck to give - I could have watched her all day. The rest of the cast are also on-point and play off each other wonderfully, making The Cripple of Inishmaan one hell of an ensemble show.
On the surface, just like Cripple Billy, The Cripple of Inishmaan doesn’t let on how smart the show truly is. But give it some time and you won’t second-guess your laughter or how much fun you are having while watching this cast bring to life Martin McDonagh’s text. It’s quintessential vintage Ireland and being ringside to the shenanigans of Inishmaan is a treat as this season reaches its homestretch.
Photo Credit: Johan Persson