Directed by the author, the award-winning Irish playwright Enda Walsh, and with just one actor, Cillian Murphy, 'Misterman' could seem like a sparse, pared-down kind of endeavour. But with the combination of an energetically charismatic performance and language that at one moment has you near to tears and the next hooting with laughter, there really is nothing sparse about this play which, though billed as a premiere, is actually a reworking of a play that first appeared back in 1999.
Thomas Magill lives in Innisfree with his mother – 'mammy'. He buys her jammie dodgers every day and has an uneasy relationship with the other inhabitants of the town, especially the numerous dogs. Thomas – don't ever call him Tom – is enthused with religious fervour, but finds himself surrounded by sin and evil. In fact, Thomas thinks that 'sin has become our religion' and sees his 'work' as a mission to save the townsfolk from their self-inflicted doom. But though one of his neighbours describes him as a 'walking saint', he is not as innocent and religiously pure as he imagines.
Armed with his ever-ready portable recorder and notebook, Thomas heads off to collect mammy's jammie dodgers. Along the way, he encounters several of the local people. But these characters don't appear in the flesh. Thomas mimics them for us, in effect holding conversations with himself. And of course, that brings out the humour as Mr Murphy switches fluidly and graphically between characters.
Jamie Vartan's design is a wonderfully dingy, grey, disused warehouse where all the action takes place. It stretches right to the back of the Lyttleton's stage and has an eclectic assortment of paraphernalia including dozens of crosses which light-up, and numerous reel-to-reel tape recorders which continually play back conversations which Thomas has assiduously recorded. And he knows these conversations by heart, cuing in the sound effects of cars starting-up and dogs barking. The grey set could be seen as symbolic of Thomas's mind, cluttered by mixed emotions and desires and beset by memories which he replays in his head over and over.
Enda Walsh vividly captures the descriptive richness of irish conversational expressions. The play is peppered with wonderfully evocative and humorous phrases such as 'feet eaten by bunions' and 'hands torn to shreds by Harpic'. But there are also beautifully poetic moments when Thomas is talking about god and his dreams, and when he is talking to his dead father.
Cillian Murphy's extraordinarily riveting performance is almost draining to watch, which kind of gives you an idea of just how much energy Mr Murphy expends in the process of bringing Thomas to life. Wearing sandals and dirty clothes, and sporting a beard, he dashes around the warehouse, gets drenched when it rains, spits, throws water and tea everywhere, and slings hammers and other props all over the place. In spite of his careful recording of events, Thomas is by nature rather disorganised and his thoughts are unrealistic and chaotic, even if he does correctly identify that our increasingly complex lives prevent us from appreciating simple pleasures. But he is also immensely vulnerable and quickly rouses our sympathy as we recognise and want to empathise with a loner who thinks that people are laughing at him all the time.
Off-beat, compelling and in the end rather sad, 'Misterman' is one of those thought-provoking plays that takes you by surprise thanks to the uniqueness of the central character. That, together with the combination of great writing and a mesmerising performance, make it unmissable.
"[Cillian] Murphy, myopically fixated on the invisible characters around him yet conveying the romantic vision of a seer, keeps us mesmerised."
Maddy Costa for The Guardian
"Cillian Murphy jumps about with a buzzing energy in Enda Walsh's unsettling story."
Fiona Mountford for the Evening Standard
"A compellingly strange, absorbing and terrifying work of startling originality. "
Charles Spencer for the Daily Telegraph