Review - The Lieutenant of Inishmore at the Noel Coward Theatre
Terrorism is usually no laughing matter; but the audacity of playwright Martin McDonagh in this play, first produced by the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2001, is to make an outright, occasionally savage and genuinely hilarious theatrical farce out of it.
The play was turned down by a number of theatres, including the National and Royal Court, before it was picked up by the RSC - McDonagh famously remarked that the play was "too good for the National" at the time, and when he was asked by the Observer to name the best play of 2001, he chose this one, "because it's the only play that counted". (And, asked to name a turkey, he proceeded to bite the hand that fed him, declaring that the low points of the year were "every other stupid empty f***ing play the RSC did in 2001, and I had to f***ing watch 'em!")
So the play comes with its own baggage, but then so, of course, does Ireland itself, and its long and bitter history with religious and political violence. As with Jez Butterworth's recent West End hit The Ferryman (now Broadway-bound), it's a play about the legacy of terrorist action, and the people who take it. It revolves around Padraic, a member of a splinter group of the IRA, who is on a moral crusade of his own as we see him torturing a local drug dealer, who we meet hung upside down, after Padraic has removed two of his toenails and is now asking him to choose which of his nipples he'll be cutting off, too.
This sets the tone for a series of atrocities to follow, set in motion by the death of Padraic's beloved pet cat Wee Thomas.
I won't spoil the surprises by revealing them here, but suffice it to say that the play is a frequently queasy but seriously guilty pleasure.
And the joy of Michael Grandage's revival, which joins his concurrent production of John Logan's Red around the corner at Wyndham's Theatre, is that it unsettles as much as it delights. As Lyn Gardner wrote when the RSC production originally transferred to the West End's Garrick Theatre, "this is a terrific play about a serious subject that's touched with a Monty Pythonesque insanity."
Grandage fields a superb ensemble cast, but the clear box office draw is the West End debut of Aidan Turner, the TV heartthrob best known for playing the title role in Poldark. The famously manicured furry chest is kept hidden beneath a singlet, but the floppy curly mop on the top of his head and bulging arms are on full and admirable display.
But this is also no stunt casting, but a terrific young actor whose insinuating charm neatly offsets his deadly, deranged violence.
It is a rollercoaster of an evening that keeps you on the edge of your seat, rocking with equal amounts of laughter and horror.
The Lieutenant of Inishmore tickets are available now.