A masterpiece is revived at the Old Vic in the form of J M Synge's 'The Playboy of the Western World'. First performed back in 1907, it still has a freshness and vitality that should please modern audiences, and there's plenty of humour too in a story that led to riots in Dublin when it was first produced.
When Robert Sheehan's Christy turns up at a public house on the wild coast of County Mayo, he is greeted almost as a hero by the local people. The reason? He claims to have killed his father by bashing him over the head with a spade. On the run, Christie needs somewhere to hide from the long arm of the law, and the tavern owner, Michael James Flaherty, and his daughter, Pegeen Mike, readily offer him a bed and a job as pot boy. In a trice, flocks of locals are turning up to get a glimpse of the new, brave arrival who has instantly acquired a glamorous reputation. But this does not last long, as Christy's father turns up, battered but definitely not dead. That changes everything in the eyes of the locals who promptly turn against him, and even Pegeen who was intent on marrying Christy, rejects him.
Music starts off the proceedings in both halves of the play. A line of singers also playing accordion, whistles, drums and the like, provide a rousing chorus. And between scenes, Scott Pask's lovingly-detailed cottage set revolves to show us view both the interior and exterior of the modest country tavern where all the action is set.
Ruth Negga is the vivacious, dark-haired Pegeen Mike, who promptly ditches her intended, the cowardly but seemingly prosperous Shawn, in favour of Christy. Pegeen is a fiery and spirited young woman, who does not suffer fools gladly. That illuminates how her emotions are overwhelmed in her attraction to Christy. And though she rejects him in the end, she demonstrates deep regret in the last line of the play.
Robert Sheehan's Christy is a rather tall, slim and gangling sort of young man. He stretches out his long arms while he's talking as though mesmerising his audience of locals. And he clearly shows a deep desire to belong, and to realise his youthful unfulfilled dreams. In contrast, Niamh Cusack's Widow Quin is the embodiment of experience and wisdom, both in affairs of the heart and in terms of commercial endeavours – she knows exactly how to negotiate and strike a business deal, as well as how to lure a lover.
The accents are sometimes a little difficult to follow closely, and I wonder if John Crowley's directorial desire for linguistic authenticity overwhelms Synge's lyrical and inventive dialogue, at least to some extent. But overall, the production is fluent, pacey and well-timed enhancing both the humour and the more tragic elements in the later scenes.
'The Playboy of the Western World' could easily be set in a small village in any country. There are universal human traits embedded in the play and the characters, such as the fickle nature of the mob, and the almost mystical nature of the lonely outcast which intrigued Synge so much. Well-worth seeing!
" the performances are superb right through the ranks. "
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"although this is a perfectly creditable revival, it never achieves the right ecstatic quality."
Michael Billington for the Guardian