Review: DruidMurphy at The Oxford Playhouse


I’m probably not the best person to review DruidMurphy, because I, like everyone else in the audience to whom I’ve spoken, have some connection to Ireland. Being an ex-pat, I’m de-sensitized to the things that the rest of the world finds endearing about the place. Hell, the scenes could have been plucked out of my own girlhood: a strapping young lad offers you one of his last potatoes and you devour it hungrily; he’s about to steal another kiss from you but then one of the many famine stricken bodies lying around heaves their final dying groan and the moment’s ruined.

Having experienced my fair share of children’s famine literature and Troubles plays, please trust me when I tell you that DruidMurphy is more than a national celebration of misery; it’s a emotionally draining event, executed flawlessly by a ground-breaking theatre company, presenting the works of an incredibly thoughtful writer who is ambitious in his presentation of the universal themes set in a very specific cultural background.

This trio of Tom Murphy plays (Conversations on a Homecoming, A Whistle in the Dark and Famine) is performed in one day from 1.30pm to 10.45pm with short intervals including a dinner break so you can get yourself a smugly lavish dinner before Famine. The faint-hearted can purchase tickets for individual plays on different nights but, though each play can stand alone, it is a pleasure to marvel at the stamina and adaptability of the handful of actors (including Marty Rea, Aaron Monaghan, Garrett Lombard and Rory Nolan) who undertake major roles in all three of the plays.

The cycle begins with Conversations on a Homecoming in which an aspiring actor, Michael (Marty Rea) returns from a 10 year stint in New York to his old local pub in Galway for the sort of joyous reunion and character assassination that one can only get from old friends. Murphy has the knack of writing truly realistic dialogue – the bulk of Conversations, funnily enough. It cuts to the quick of the situation without sounding staged. Garrett Lombard shines as an intelligent cynic, Tom, wasting away in his school teaching job, 10 years engaged to the sweetly shrill Peggy (Eileen Walsh), a sad but mesmerising train-wreck. It’s a wonderfully wry induction into a certain paradoxical romanticism about home and abroad that seems to haunt the Irish dreamer.

Conversations is followed by A Whistle in the Dark, a nail-biting tragedy in which action replaces words. It follows an Irish family of brothers, the Carneys, who move to Coventry in the 1960s. Old family grievances are aired when eldest brother – a pacifist “coward” in a boorish family of pugilists – is visited by his crooked orating father, Dada. Niall Buggy, scene after scene, brings the character of Dada all the way to a precipice of pathetic despair, then back again to deliver a hilarious one-liner. If you can only afford to see one of part of the cycle, A Whistle in the Dark is my personal recommendation for its back-alley examination of family values as well as valour and a poignant social comment on self-perpetuating cultural stereotypes.

After the absorbing Conversations and the exhilarating Whistle, the slow-moving Famine is not as easily swallowed. Much more expressionist in style, the influence of the director, Garry Hynes, is most keenly felt here. A scene involving state and church officials becomes difficult to take in as we watch the dying writhe and slide across the floor during a pathetic presentation of proposals to ‘resolve’ the 1840s Famine that resulted in the death of millions. Famine follows the moral, social and pastoral
decline of a village in West Ireland as its population declines and thoughts turn to despair, theft, murder and emigration. The play itself lacks the textual richness of Murphy’s other works but the play is saved by astounding performances from the cast. The energy of Marie Mullen (Mother) in her climactic cry of anguish and desperation would be enough to hang an entire production on.

Fortunately, there are no weak performances; every line in this production is perfectly executed – well, for 8 hours of your time, you’d like to think so. No doubt, it’s a marathon. You may have to have a lie-down after the diaphragmatic stress of laughing and stomach clenching.

***** (5 STARS)

PHOTO/ Catherine Ashmore