Life is full of surprises. Little surprises. And not so little surprises. Even on Inishmaan, where Cripple Billy spends his days staring at cows and the biggest news involves the fate of farm animals, Life can suddenly rear up and beat the bejesus out of you or barge through the front door and bestow a reason for living with a kiss.
In a splendid revival of Martin McDonagh's very funny and touching play The Cripple of Inishmaan, an excellent cast led by a superb Daniel Radcliffe turns the foibles and idiosyncrasies of the denizens of that island off the western coast of Ireland into a microcosm of our own benighted world, where danger may lurk behind the façade of kindness and kindness itself may emerge from the face of danger.
Days on Inishmaan normally follow a prescribed routine, especially in the shop run by the Osbourne sisters, Eileen and Kate. Johnnypateenmike comes in to barter the day's news for a hatful of eggs, or a can of peas if Helen, the fiery redhead who delivers the eggs happens to have smashed them all for one reason or another. Helen's brother Bartley will stop by to see what candy is on offer. And Billy, the deformed cripple Eileen and Kate have raised since his parents both drowned in a boating accident, will come home from a day of staring at cows.
Eileen and Kate are in a constant worry about Billy. For one thing, he spends far too much time reading books and looking at cows. He also has a wheeze for which they send him regularly to the doctor, and they fret that no one will ever want to kiss Billy, even Helen who will kiss just about anything. "She'd kiss a donkey," they observe, "but not Cripple Billy."
But one piece of news Johnnypateen brings one day in 1934 is really headline stuff on Inishmaan. An American movie company has arrived on the neighboring island of Inishmore to make a filum there, and Bobbybobby is going to take Helen and Bartley over in his boat to audition for a part in it. Sure, Ireland can't be such a bad place if Yanks want to make a filum there.
Billy also wants to try out for the movie, but Bobbybobby won't agree to take him in his boat until Billy produces a letter from the doctor saying he has tuberculosis and only three months to live. Bobbybobby, whose own wife died to TB, then feels sorry for Billy and agrees to let Billy tag along, though he can't imagine the movie people would want a cripple in their filum.
At the heart of McDonagh's play is Billy's search for the truth about his parents, how and why they died in the sea and how he came to be saved, and whether they loved him. It is a truth that the residents of Inishmaan have carefully kept from him despite his persistent questioning. And like so many truths, it is one that turns out to be particularly ugly, and it is McDonagh's particular genius that he can find something good to come from it.
But it is the populace of Inishmaan, where sanity hangs by a thread, you are not likely to forget anytime soon. Beautifully directed by Michael Grandage, this terrific cast brings each of them and their individual quirks indelibly to life.
First and foremost there is Radcliffe's Billy. Not content with a simple limp, Radcliffe keeps Billy's deformed leg ramrod straight and his withered hand curled into a claw as he lurches around the stage. It is almost painful to watch, and one is tempted to rush up to help him, especially since he'll be getting none from anyone on Inishmaan.
But it is Radcliffe's convincingly desperate desire to hear a good word about his parents that sets his Billy apart. Here is a kind-hearted lad who takes life's misfortunes in stride after tortured stride, and who can piece together a new dream out of the shards of a shattered one.
Pat Shortt is a revelation as Johnnypateenmike, lurking in the shadows to pick up any gossip he can broadcast as the island's town crier and spoon feeding his old mammie jars of whisky in the hopes it will kill her, all with a good-natured smile and a kind word.
Sarah Greene is a menacing mischief as Helen, whether she's smashing eggs on her brother's head or dispatching a goose and a cat for a few bob. She is a study of contradictions, ready to kiss anybody in her buried longing for affection except the clergy who grope her arse.
Gillian Hanna and Ingrid Craigie are wonderfully slow-witted as Eileen, who secretly munches the candies she's supposed to sell, and Kate, who takes refuge from her troubles by talking to stones. Padraic Delaney is excellent as Bobbybobby, the soft-hearted mariner with a buried fury. June Watson, Conor MacNeill, and Gary Lilburn round out the fine cast.
A recurring line in the play is: "Ireland can't be all bad if ... (fill in the blank)." To be sure, Ireland can't be anything bad if it still produces playwrights like McDonagh.