11 October 2011

The Playboy of the Western World at the Old Vic

My current deep immersion in London's theatre scene, in all its guises, brought me back to the Old Vic to see The Playboy of the Western World.

But first I had to get there and as I am working in Cardiff at the moment that meant a well-timed train to Paddington, a rumble along the Bakerloo Line and a quick beer and a bowl of nuts at the Waterloo Theatre Bar.

Then it was time for Theatre Plan B. Theatre Plan A applies to small theatres with free seating and involves securing a seat in the front row. Plan B applies to larger (and more expensive) theatres and means going for a seat high-up. If you cannot sit right next to the action then you might as well save money and go for the Upper Circle. I also like the view from up there, something I've learned from Glyndebourne.

The Playboy (using a shortened title through laziness) is set in a small pub in a small village in Ireland about a century ago where we meet the landlord's lively daughter, Margaret, and her dull fiancée Shawn. They are Irish peasants and do the actors do their best to sound like Irish peasants which made following the dialogue a little difficult at times. I was grateful for my Irish mother and Irish colleagues for giving me lessons in understanding their accents.

The play is supported, carried and enriched by its dialogue (which is another way of saying that not much happens) so being able to follow (most of) it was very useful.

We meet a few more villagers, including Margaret's father, who are mostly as jolly as you would expect peasant in a pub with no obvious opening hours to be.

In to this genteel setting a young stranger, Christy, arrives in a whirl of chaos. He's agitated, voluble and bustling. The reason for this is that he killed his father "when last Tuesday was a week" and has been on the run and hiding in ditches every since.

Murder obviously had not quite the same sense of seriousness in 19th century Ireland that it does today and the upshot of this revelation is that everybody is captivated by Christy.

This is especially true of Margaret and a gaggle of village girls who find a pretence to come to the pub to see him. The old women are interested in him too and a widow flirts outrageously.

And there we have it. A young man with an exciting history and a small group of villagers reacting to it. The dialogue that comes from the encounter is fast and funny. It's a comedy of attitudes.

The story develops nicely too. Christy's becomes even more popular by winning a donkey race and Margaret resolves to marry him. Then his murdered father appears alive after all only to be murdered again. Now the villagers turn on Christy, a murder in another village brings notoriety but a murder in their own village brings the risk of them being implicated in the foul deed.

A couple of twists later and the story reaches its unexpected but very satisfactory conclusion.

I am sure that there are complexities and subtleties to this play that I missed (that's probably always true) and I consumed it gleefully as a work of entertainment rather than a work of deep meaning. And theatre that entertains as well as this is always worth seeing.

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