Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

paycock head

Juno and her 'paycock': husband and wife Jack Boyle (Tom O'Connor) and in the title role, Mary MacDonald (Juno Boyle). Pictures: Simon Cook

Juno and the Paycock

Loft Theatre, Leamington


MICHAEL Billington, dean of London’s theatre critics today, wrote of Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist - the next play to be staged (in March) by the endlessly gifted Loft Theatre company, Leamington - ‘This is a play that transcends its time and enlarges one’s human understanding.’

One can certainly say the same of Sean O’Casey’s ‘Trilogy’, the last of which, The Plough and the Stars, was staged by the Loft a season or so back.

Its predecessors were Shadow of a Gunman (1923), which the Loft has already mounted some seasons ago, and the best known, Juno and the Paycock (1924), which the Loft has just staged in its bristling-with-life theatre beside the Leam.

The company certainly does its bit by Irish repertoire: not long ago it added Martin McDonagh’s black comedies The Cripple of Inishmaan (the next step in Daniel Radcliffe’s burgeoning stage career) and  The Lieutenant of Inishmore, set amid more recent tensions in the Aran Isles off Galway (J. M. Synge country), and the same playwright’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Connemara is also part of Galway; hence the Loft has pulled off what might be equally called the McDonagh trilogy) to its roster.

Thus no stranger to comedy, or tragi-comedy, the Loft takes serious theatre seriously, and triumphs in it. This is a so-called ‘amateur’ company that can switch from Hamlet to The History Boys with equal professionalism; from the Angsts of Chekhov (Three Sisters) to the hilarious parody of Dylan Thomas (Under Milk Wood); from full frontal sexiness and haunting, sinister threat (Peter Nichols’ Privates on Parade) to Samuel Beckett’s absurdist Endgame, without blinking an eyelid. 

There are no fellow-travellers. The Loft has strength in depth; impressive acting talent to call on; endless intelligence in production; a capable, creative technical department, in both design and execution; and the twin gift of laughing at itself yet taking its task of presentation very seriously indeed. The more functional of its stagings are polished; the outstanding ones, momentous.

Thus, a Lear. And a Macbeth. The Scottish thane (the lead role) was played there by Gus MacDonald, and while he took on minor roles here, in Juno and the Paycock, it was his direction - shrewdly judged, seeking out those curious moments where O’Casey has comic relaxedness and horrific threat joust with one another in early 1920s Dublin, and prising from each the maximum poignancy, that guaranteed this had the edge on the Loft’s serviceable but less involving Plough and the Stars, which MacDonald (who has however overseen their Equus, Calendar Girls, Noises Off and Brassed Off) did not direct.

One doesn’t have to have seen Neil Jordan’s biopic Michael Collins to know, as Stephen Rea and Liam Neeson showed us, how the period around 1922 was even more horrific in ‘Free State’ southern Ireland than at the time of the wartime uprising against the British.

Civil strife is, if anything more brutal and unforgiving (Alan Rickman’s De Valera) than war between states (on a lesser scale, think even of the ‘scab’ abuse between South Yorkshire and Nottingham miners in 1984-5).

War, though omnipresent as a background, breaks in only from time to time in Juno and the Paycock, and we know that Johnny (Jimmy Proctor), the son of the Boyle family, has got dangerously mixed up with the combatantNeedle and Joxer sides and the growing hostilities.

His part will come back to haunt him, thanks to the ‘Irregulars’ marshalled by their grim recruiting boss (MacDonald himself). But much of the play gives us life going along regardless, all on the same splendidly conceived set - part sparse, part (when a dream of an inheritance comes true) crazily plush, with a superb duo, Tom O’Connor, playing the family’s father, ‘Captain’ John (Jack) Boyle, the once, not very long-time sailor, and - endlessly interesting to watch, in moves as in gestures - his wife, Juno (Mary MacDonald).

Jeremy Heynes as 'Needle' Nugent' plots with Phil Reynolds' Joxer

Actually the sense of imminent tragedy and pain is best conveyed through the daughter, Mary (Flora Garner in a notably touching performance). Her guilt is about jettisoning her amiable boyfriend, Jerry (Connor Bailey, here subdued, but one of the hit performances in Privates on Parade); her armless brother’s (Jimmy Proctor) is about a betrayal of a young IRA-sympathiser, a friend and neighbour, to Collins’ Free State aficianados; in the gruesome if abrupt end, not one but two lads will lie dead.

But it is the now pretty-haired, blossoming Mary’s revealing of her own pregnancy near the end, and her self-centred father’s appalling reaction, which help O’Casey reveal how the grimness and inflexible opinions of males at home can match the awfulness of a national uprising, whether on the doorstep or braking down the door.

One thing that worked notably well in MacDonald’s patient, detailed treatment was the pacing - just a little slow to get going (partly O’Casey’s fault), yet beautifully controlled by Tom O’Connor’s Dad, who seemed to take the script by the gills and squeeze from it every kind of ambience.

Thanks to his skill, you are treated to unforeseen changes in pitch, and shifts of timbre, all the time: and it generates that golden unpredictability so crucial to plays - like Ibsen and Chekhov - that masquerade as comedy while deep down marching headlong towards tragedy. Mood switches are what families are about, and in this ensemble the rapidity of alternation between laughter, malicious ribbing and brief bouts of fury made the interpretation wonderfully true to life.

As in many a good or flawed family, mother rules the roost, or - in absentia aliorum - tries to (Juno because ‘she was born in June, christened in June, we met in June, Johnny was born in June’; and, we should add, Mary was born on a Tuesday in June, 1901 - the year, see below, of the premiere of Chekhov’s Three Sisters).

It is Jack, spuriously complaining about his legs to weasel off work, and forever wingeing (‘because of what Johnny did for his country you expect his old father to work’) - who is the paycock (self-satisfied peacock) Juno is saddled with: ‘Oh, he’ll come in when he likes; struttin’ about the town like a paycock’; and again, ‘’I killin’ meself workin’, an’ he sthruttin about from morning till night like a paycock’. 

Ever the evader, Jack, moreover, tries to dodge what is going on outside (IRCaptai JackA versus Free State): ‘These things have nothing to do with us’. It is Juno who quickly puts him right: ‘If it’s not our business, I’d like to know whose business it is.’ It is the woman who is the realist.

Juno’s great soliloquy comes at the Ibsen/Strindberg-like end, when Johnny Boyle has been brutally fetched and summarily executed by the IRA - O’Casey’s text, for all its fame, seemed underwhelming, but Mary MacDonald’s delivery of it, played utterly straight, was weighty and spellbinding notwithstanding:

 Tom O'Connor as 'Captain' Jack Boyle, with a brilliantly reconstructed period cast-iron stove

‘Maybe I didn’t feel sorry enough for Mrs. Tancred when her poor son (the boy betrayed to Collins’ side for whatever reason - fear?) was found as Johnny’s been found now - because he was a Die-hard (pro-De Valera). Ah, why didn’t I remember that then he wasn’t a Die-hard or a (Free-)Stater, but only a poor dead son . . .’ (a powerful explosion of grief came earlier from the bereaved mother, played by Angie Collins); and then, ‘Sacred Heart o’Jesus, take away our heart o’stone, and give us hearts o’ flesh! Take away this murdherin’ hate, an’ give us Thine own eternal love!’  

Actually you feel Juno (despite ‘why didn’t I remember...?’) has known all the time that tragedy would touch their family in all its forms. Yet one feels that if Andrew Davies (almost a local to the Loft) had been given this script to convert for television, he would have fleshed out Juno herself considerably.

If the Lord was to be invoked, especially by the women, he should have played a far greater part in the text of the drama. It is this that makes one wonder whether, for all this play’s fame over the generations, The Plough and the Stars isn’t actually the stronger play. 

No peace for those in tenements: things looked up - or shuddered - as often as the bossy, smug, debt-collecting neighbour, Mrs. Maisie Madigan (Maddy Kerr, once their Nora in The Doll’s House; now, aptly, a little beefier) looked in: ‘I’ll pull some o’th’ gorgeous feathers out o’ your tail!’); even though I found her moves a bit pallid, something MacDonald might have picked up on. Jack, like many a tenement-living, near-impoverished Paddy, lives by bravado, especially when he foresees himself coming into a fortune; but his display is empty. Now John Boyle owes money galore, and the bailiffs impend, when the wheel of fortune predictably swings, after the supposed inheritance turns out to be a chimaera.

If Jack, ever out for a jar, is utterly, blissfully unreliable, he cannot match his fellow-imbiber, the hilarious but impossible ‘Joxer’ Daly. Phil Reynolds, constantly stretching himself to invent unpredictable new characterisations (several disparate roles on top of each other in Under Milk Wood, following the maudlin Hector in The History Boys and spruce senior officer of Privates), excels himself as the hanger-on-cum-leader-on who you simply can’t get rid of. ‘It’s a terrible thing to be tied to a woman that’s always grousin’. I don’t know how you stick it.’) 

In a wonderfully mischievous, rubbery performance - you never know where his hands are going next, or his neck or his knees, his trousers forever crumpled and awry - twiddling with a fork or arching to scratch some elusive part of his anatomy, shifting and flexing his stance as if he’s had a bullet in the knee (as opposed to ‘in me kisser’): a sort of constant nervous tic such as only a practised scene-stealer can perfect.

This was the performance of the evening, histrionically trumpeting ‘Let me like a soldier fall, My breast expanding to the ball’, a deliciously ludicrous favourite from Vincent Wallace’s hit opera Maritana, also quoted by James Joyce).

Could one take one’s eyes off this crazed person, this blissfully bizarre creation? No. Joxer’s exits, and equally his shambolic entries rearstage, were a hoot. His endless use of the word ‘darlin’ (‘a darlin, darlin’ man’; ‘a darlin’ funeral, a darlin funeral’; ‘a darlin’ story’; ‘a darlin’ word’) has the gift of inserting comedy into the most abrasive and awkward parts of O’Casey’s scenario. 

But ‘battling the wind’, bursting into verse or song (then stumbling over the words) and soaking up a large intake of Liffey Guinness, a sort of escapee fMary and Jerryrom an Irish Dad’s Army, Joxer is also the Philosopher (are he and Boyle a prototype for Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon?); the observer who cannily clocks all he sees, and then recycles it, if necessarily, maliciously: ‘Oi’ve met many a Wicklow man in my time, but oi never met one that was any good’.

If anyone apart from the instinctive Juno knows the kind of messy end that may befall them all, as the distant, or sometimes nearer, patter of rifles is heard (setting up a tension not wholly dissimilar to the Malaysian jungle of Privates on Parade), it is sly old Joxer.

Flora Garner as Mary Boyle and Connor Bailey as Jerry Devine  

Through him, too, we get this vexing feeling that the greatest comic moment may mask the most unhappy truth. Reynolds’ Joxer lives for today because, though he is an almost Chekhovian optimist-pessimist fusion, due to the world’s folly and foolery there may be no tomorrow - whereas pal Jack exudes sorely misplaced optimism in his desire for this windfall of wealth, so that he can deck out the flat, if not his own regalia, like a peacock: all crimsons and velvets, the plush, the showy and the fancy. Showy or shoddy, Jack has no belief in an end: as owner of the world, why should he? 

Whence the optimism? Who brings him this, as it turns out, duff news? The young lawyer, and the one who (if not his superiors) has failed through inexperience to read the last will and testament correctly: Mr. Bentham.

Neither George Heynes (as a gently suave, attentive - indeed solicitous - Bentham) nor Jeremy Heynes (as ‘Needle’ Nugent) - despite an amiable affinity with, say, a doddery Eric Sykes as servant Adam and a bibulous cleric, the first straight out of Brian Rix, in Peter Hall’s late As You Like It - had much of a part to get their teeth into.

The younger Heynes was one of those impudent successes in Privates On Parade; his father, one of the Loft’s most celebrated long-term performers, a striking, guilt-laden presence in their recent Three Sisters and an unforgettable Narrator in Under Milk Wood, is inevitably more persuasive when he has a few hundred lines to deliver.

By common consent one of the most accomplished character actors to grace the Midlands stage in the past three decades, a born Prospero, Jacques or Aguecheek, a Henry IV or Buckingham, it was Heynes’ blinded, cliff-suicide-seeking Gloucester that, when time was, brought such withering, aching tragedy to the Loft’s King Lear; just as a hair-raising Hamlet’s Ghost lent the young hothead his fatal fire. As all this suggests, his royals have to be seen to be believed: an Emperor Joseph to upstage Jeffrey Jones in Amadeus; a George III to match Nigel Hawthorne, guardian of pigs and ‘Mrs. King’, in The Madness of George III.

Meanwhile George Heynes seems to be fast emerging, with aspirations to turn professional as his father, to many’s regrets, elected not to; and has a healthy share of those paternal gifts.

It’s difficult to see him as a Prince Hal quite yet, but he would make a marvellous Ferdinand (The Tempest; here he is just as elegantly courting the Boyles’ daughter, Mary) or Henry Tudor, or one joxerof Ibsen’s or Strindberg’s younger leads. There is an earnestness and a decency which might prove a hindrance, but, as here, can be played on as an asset. He would make a delightful Lorenzo. But while a natural Antipholus, Orlando or Lucentio (The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, The Taming of the Shrew), he perhaps needs, and deserves, further testing, and more taxing casting - as a Dromio, Feste or Petruchio. 

The shambolic Joxer played by Phil Reynolds makes a small point to Juno   

If the set was a treasure, somehow more durable and convincing and less cardboard , more subtly coloured than the rather bald Plough and the Stars, the ensemble’s first major set move or scene change was effected by the entire cast - exchanging dour Act 1 (though including a delightful stove) for the ludicrous ostentation of Act 2 (Richard Moore to thank for both) - in one of the most enjoyable pièces-de-resistance of its kind (together with the dissolution of the family meal table) I can remember from a recent amateur staging: more like The Swan at Stratford.  A treat to watch, it earned its own outburst of hearty applause from the audience, and justifiably so.

Three Sisters

One has seen this seasoned ensemble in play after play, and somehow everything gels: they play off one another like a team of true professionals. A fair amount of that was to be seen in their recent Three Sisters (Tri Sestri), a stagework (Moscow Arts Theatre, 1901) where one has to struggle against the glorious wordiness of Chekhov to keep things moving.

It was a treat to watch the young Prozorovs (or Prozorovas), Emma Cooper (the gloomy Olga, most obviously the General’s daughter - the old man dead exactly a year - matronly and schoolmarmly, a close relation of Dorothy Tutin’s Varya in The Cherry Orchard); Masha (Rachel Adams) and Flora Garner (‘little’ Irina, 23 going on 18, and longing hopelessly to make her mark in life) gracing the Loft’s deliberately darkly lit stage, two of whom were making their Loft debut: and what finds they were (Cooper was their Ophelia, and their young Jane Eyre in the play based on the novel. With them came the prematurely family head, the brother Andrei (Joe Riley), arguably the real intellectual of the cast,  

There were numerous other pleasures in David Fletcher’s production, laden with atmosphere, and sometimes laden with personnel: Chekhov is quite happy to put nine, and later 11, then 13 on a stage and let them jaw-jaw (at times when the men talk shop it feels like a militarists’ club): or to run three or four meaty speeches in a row, tail on tail.

There was the widely experienced Dave Crossfield (Richard III, Rudyard Kipling in My Boy Jack, Eliot in Tom and Viv, Downey in A Few Good Men) as the (as it happens, doomed) Baron, Tuzenbakh, a Chekhov stock character (‘I’ve never done a stroke of work in my life’: you can just hear Ronald Pickup saying it; but economic times are changing); and Mark Crossley, like MacDonald an actor-director, as the inevitable Schoolmaster (here, Masha’s slightly tedious, workhorse, yet omnipresent husband, ever ready with snippets of Latin; I liked his performance enormously). I wasn’t too sure of the dramatic value of Glynis Fletcher’s brief, sad, folklike vocal interventions, but she sang each of them exquisitely. One had the pleasure of seeing Anne Wood (Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard) recycled as the old nurse Anfisa: she has as many Loft credits under her dramatic bra as anyone (Miss Marple, for instance); gracelessly maltreated by Natasha (‘She’s a peasant, she ought to go back to her village...’), you would think her, octogenarian or no, perfectly capable of sticking up for herself. Actually she looked like a Caravaggio, and very beautiful, too.

Everyone yearns, as usual, to go to, or go back to, Moscow (Irina above all:‘Moscow, Moscow, Moscow’. Amid this we learn the pleasures of ‘krupotnik’ (krupnik) vodka; watch a splendidly blocked family meal that looks more like one of Prince Orlovsky’s banquets in Fledermaus; the aching of Andrei for Natalia (Catherine Hazell, another Loft debut); the inept lusting after Irina of men of sundry ages, the gadding about of Marya (Masha) and her beau, the senior officer Vershinin (Richard Marshall), the mayhem so easily caused when the new wife starts setting new rules, and Olga’s promotion, that at last releases her from the materfamilias or châtelaine role, stolen from her by the pert, role-grabbing new arrival.

Jeremy Heynes had the tangibly enjoyable, fun role of Ivan Romanovich Chebutykin, the sexagenarian army doctor, eccentric in an amiable way, once passionate ‘Then I was madly in love with your mother - and of course she was married’), generous (genuinely, not least to Irina) and later clumsy and pissed enough to give away, in a half-line, the state of others’ extramarital dawdlings. As Masha has it, a bit cruelly but perhaps aptly, ‘You’re sixty years old, but you talk rot like a schoolboy, just to raise hell.’ Well, he has a twinkle, more like.

Here, slightly subdued, was classic Heynes, perhaps obscured or inhibited sometimes by the beautifully shifting but invariably dark lighting (despite turquoises, and sombre yellows - at one point brilliantly pinpointing from above). How one would have liked to see his lumbering, apologetic Simeonov-Pischik, in the Loft’s The Cherry Orchard - although only other responsibilities can have deprived him of the made-to-fit role of Gaev.

But among the youngsters, both Joe Riley (a convincing, and at times touching Andrey - it is his and Natalia’s baby whom Fletcher wheels on as a kind of Act IV prop: the infathe three sistersnt Bóbik, heir presumptive; this sweet infant stems from a generation that will give Russia its white and red armies, and Communism) and newcomer Jacob Meadows - as the somewhat crude and unappealing Solyony, whose presumption, moody self-deception (he sees himself ‘as a sort of Lermontov: I’ve even started writing poetry’), preoccupation with corpses and braggadocio ends in the shooting (‘I won’t do him too much damage; I’ll just wing him, like a woodcock’) of his ‘friend’, the Baron.

The three Prozorov sisters - Irina (Flora Garner), Olga (Emma Cooper) and Masha (Rachel Adams). Photo: Richard Smith.

It is a play riddled, not surprisingly, with Chekhovisms. One of his favourites is to introduce a soliloquy quite unexpectedly into an otherwise fast-interchange passage. Act 3 is enfolded by, first, a gem from Chebutykin (‘They think I can treat all sorts of complaints; in truth I know nothing, I’ve forgotten it all, I remember absolutely nothing...’), followed by Russian self-pity (‘that woman I killed on Wednesday...It was my fault she died’), and then philosophy disguised as twerpery (‘Perhaps I don’t exist at all’) and lugubrious memories - ‘Shakespeare, Voltaire, of course I hadn’t read a page of either, but I looked as if I’d read them; and all the others did the same’ ...; ‘everything seemed nasty, disgusting and all twisted in my soul’: hence the inevitable - ‘I went and got drunk’. But in a year he will get his pension: ‘and I shall return and be quieter, more well-behaved’ (as usual in Chekhov, some chance.)

As if to put a curse on the whole business, Chebutykin smashes the family’s (late mother’s) clock: and as he spills the beans (about Natasha’s dalliance with Local Council kapo Protopopov), before a sneery exit singing, Heynes opens the door to the second set-piece soliloquy, for Richard Marshall (Vershinin), to whom Chekhov allots a double bite: a horrid evocation of saving his daughters in nightgowns from a fire; and then, ‘In another two or three hundred years - what a wonderful life it will be; it’s as if everyone (now) was asleep: we will be out of date; generations will be born who will be better than you.’

And, still in pure Chekhov vein, which could actually be Chebutykin speaking, ‘I have a great desire to philosophise tonight. I’m in the mood. Forgive me airing my theories again! I have such a desire to talk about the future.’ Chekhov’s well-to-do folk, in city or country, have the gift of impotence: they do, feel they can do, nothing about the world around them. Their role, in the main, is to be passive, and to cling to talk as their only safety valve. Vershinin catches the 1890s (or 1900) spirit perfectly: Chekhov depicts an era that is dying, and in some cases knows it is dying, on its feet.

And the pessimism invades even Irina (delightful Flora Garner), the child of the family: ‘I’ve had enough: I’m already 23 and my brain is frying up . . . I’m getting thin and old and ugly, there’s no satisfaction, I don’t really understand why I haven’t killed myself . . . ’. She has kept thinking they would go to Moscow and she would find the right man there; but it isn’t going to happen.

Sandwiched between Uncle Vanya (1900) and The Cherry Orchard (1904), Tri Sestri is a joyous cavalcade of Chekhovian observation: the inevitable guilt and social content (‘We should always help out the poor: it’s a duty’); the woman’s iron rule (‘There should be order in this house. That’s how I like it.’ - Catherine Hazell’s domineering Natasha, anticipating Varya three years later); mildly offensive folklore: ‘She’s a witch’; whiffs of local geography (‘You’ve never been to the Caucasus’); passion ‘I have a fire raging in here’; morose resignation (‘You snatch up happiness whenever you can’); pooh-poohing relations (‘If I lived in Moscow I wouldn’t care what the weather was like’); frightening honesty: Paradox - Riley’s Andrey: ‘I love Natasha, I really do, but sometimes she seems to me completely vulgar’.

Life in Chekhov is rarely ideal. And yet it could still be today - hence his enduring power, as this finely conceived Loft production proved. The human attempts of his characters to be ‘modern’ or anti-modern still hold good in today’s world. Back to Michael Billington’s rating: ‘This is a play that transcends its time and enlarges one’s human understanding.’

Moore’s sets paralleled the quality of the hardworking cast - perfectly chosen metal garden seats, imaginative plants and bushes, slat-like floor, small stepped adjustments in levels. The costuming, devised by Wardrobe head Helen Brady, I thought fabulous, with a huge beneficial effect on the staging’s impact. The translation is David Fletcher’s own: line after line came off admirably. But perhaps the enduring thing, apart from the cast’s speaking and delivery, was the natural way in which all the characters seemed to move - and even dance. It all rang true. That’s one of the qualities that lifts the Loft above so many others.

The Philanthropist, directed by Sue Moore, runs at the Loft Theatre from Wed 16 to Sat 26 March, and Moonlight and Magnolias (set in Hollywood) from Sat 9 to Sat 16 April. The company will present Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None from Wed 25 May to Sat 4 June. Completing the season is Stephen Sondheim’s Musical  Sweeney Todd (Wed 13 to Sat 23 July).

Roderic Dunnett


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