First performed at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1924, Sean O'Casey's 'Juno and the Paycock' is revived here in a co-production between the National and the Abbey Theatre, Ireland's National Theatre.
The play is set in a tenement in Dublin in 1922. There are many similarities with Ena Lamont Stewart's 'Men Should Weep' which the Lyttleton staged last October and which was also set in a tenement, though in Glasgow rather than Ireland. In Dublin, the tenements developed as the gentry moved out in the early part of the nineteenth century, reducing the value of the massively elegant properties to just a few hundred pounds by the 1840s. Unscrupulous landlords packed these houses and by 1900 one third of the population lived in the squalid and decaying buildings. Bob Crowley's set vividly reflects these ghastly and decrepit conditions.
The Boyle family live in one vast room which betrays all the signs of faded elegance with holes in the windows, dingy and flaking paint everywhere, and two bedrooms created out of rough planks of wood. Mrs Boyle is known as Juno because she was born and christened in June and other major events in her life seem to have happened in that same month. Mr Boyle is better known as 'Captain Jack' thanks to working as a merchant seaman and his penchant for wearing a nautical kind of hat. The Captain is a wastrel who suddenly develops pains in his legs when the possibility of a job looms, and prefers perusing the newspaper and drinking with his mates. His daughter, Mary, is on strike and reads Ibsen, and the Boyle's son, Johnny, lost an arm in the struggle against the English and lives in fear of retribution during the ongoing civil war.
The Boyles are broke, and the only breadwinner is Mrs Boyle. But out of the blue, good news materialises. An English solicitor, Mr Bentham brings news that the family have been left a small fortune in a will. New furniture, a phonograph and plenty of drink are quickly acquired 'on tick' in the expectation of the imminent arrival of the inheritance. But the family's good fortune is, perhaps predictably, doomed.
Sinéad Cusack's Juno is the strength and linchpin of the Boyle family, holding it together almost by willpower alone, and in spite of her feckless husband. Even when the family situation seems to have changed for the better she does not seem able to shake off the years of hardship which have become ingrained in every fibre of her being. But she still has strength enough to endure the unbearable as she movingly demonstrates at the end of the play. Ciáran Hinds as Captain Jack is more roguish schoolboy than anything approximating to a supportive husband, sneaking sausages while his wife is out, and then hiding the evidence under the furniture. Ronan Raferty's ghost-like Johnny teeters on the edge of an emotional precipice, expecting a fatal call at any moment to rough and final justice. And there's great support and humour from Risteárd Cooper's gangling Joxer Daly.
The brilliance of Sean O'Casey's play lies in the balance between comedy and tragedy. Apparently O'Casey described the play as a 'tragedy in three acts', but there is a rich vein of humour running right the way through it. At the end, though, we we are left wondering whether to laugh or cry, for the denouement is a mixture of almost unendurable pain and sheer farce as Sinéad Cusack's Juno collapses in grief and Ciáran Hinds's Captain collapses in a drunken stupor. Even with a few rough edges in the diction department, this production handles the balancing act effectively to deliver a creditable and enjoyable revival.
"This patchy production of a masterpiece might just become a great one. "
Charles Spencer for The Telegraph
"This revival too often feels like polished heritage theatre."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"It’s more than 20 years since Sean O’Casey’s Dublin classic graced the National Theatre, but it’s been well worth the wait"
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail