REVIEW: The Playboy of the Western World

An uneven but jovial production at Pembroke New Cellars

Cambridge Theatre irish Pembroke New Cellars playboy of the western world student theatre

“A daring fellow is the jewel of the world…”

The Playboy of the Western World is a thoroughly Irish play of the 1900s, that caused riots when it was first performed (a good promise of the best night possible). Walk into Pembroke New Cellars between now and 11 February, and you’ll be greeted with cafeteria-table seating, an abundance of free cider (and not just Sainsbury’s Basics, either!) and the cast loudly singing an Irish drinking song. So began a thoroughly enjoyable, and also thoroughly strange production.

Christy Mahon has killed his tyrannical father with a loy (a kind of spade, though if you didn’t know that you’ll pick it up from the…gestures). Stumbling dishevelled into Michael Flaherty’s tavern on the west coast of Ireland, his story seems less to frighten the locals than make him the new town hero; the men think him bold, and the town’s women come in droves – even Flaherty’s daughter, the barmaid Pegeen, falls in love with him. Comic but not entirely so, satirical with a thick streak of absurdity, the Irish-inspired language of the play runs the gamut from bluntly hilarious to hauntingly lyrical (particularly in Christy’s dialogue, and Christy (Todd Gillespie) is one of the non-Irish actors in this production who can pull off a good Irish accent; not all are equally successful).

It’s easy to get caught up in the donkey races and the flirting women and the free-flowing jovial atmosphere, but you can never quite shake the feeling that there is something about this play which is deeply, deeply weird. Synge (its writer) was hailed as an ‘Irish genius’, and the play, while rarely restaged, has often piqued and offended. Some Irish nationals rioted at the first production, believing the play a blasphemous insult; Brecht took Christy as a proletariat hero against the corrupt regime. Drinking songs and Oedipus complexes. So it goes.

I’m seriously happy that this play’s been put on in Cambridge, and the cast overall did it justice – Gillespie caught Christy’s charm and instability, while other standout performances included half-pantomime half-heartfelt Widow Quin (Eleanor Booton), taunting, down-to-earth Pegeen Mike (Niamh Curran) and the flamboyant (and bloody hilarious) tavern owner (Adam Ó Chongaile). Pembroke New Cellars has less resources and less polish than the ADC or Corpus Playroom, but for the trade-down in gloss (there were far more fumbled lines here than you’d find in an ADC headliner, and when the actors go ‘offstage’ they sit behind you – though I actually like how that fits with the atmosphere) you get a warmth, an intimacy, and a touch of the unorthodox.

Pegeen (Niamh Curran) and Christy (Todd Gillespie)

The play is produced closer to a straight comedy than it could be, and it’s somewhat left to the audience to pick out the implicit satire in Christy’s celebrity, and the incongruity of the ending, with the production ultimately lacking some of the subtlety and madness of the source material. But it’s a fun production with a sharp edge and worth a watch if you like to pick up the rarer productions in Cambridge theatre.

3/5 stars