The Walworth Farce

Photo credit: Olympia Theater
Photo credit: Olympia Theater


Farce: A comedy that aims at entertaining the audience through situations that are highly exaggerated, extravagant, and improbable: often incomprehensible plot-wise, they are also characterized by physical comedy, the use of deliberate absurdity, and stylized performances.

The Walworth Farce programme

I was really excited when I heard back in September that this play would be running in January, an opportunity to see Brendan Gleeson on stage, together with sons Brian and Domhnall. I was ready the morning tickets went on sale, calling at 5am from home (New York) to secure tickets for the first show at the Olympia Theater, and I scheduled a Dublin visit around that January 10th performance.

It’s been such a great year for Brendan Gleeson – that warm, wry performance in Calvary, as the kind of priest you’d want in your local parish, and most recently, as the grief-laden and loving father, Conor, doing his best as a widower to raise his two children, in the richly illustrated and so very mesmerizing Song of the Sea which opened in New York and Toronto right before Christmas, and just now also in Los Angeles.

The previous winter, in New York we had been treated to Brian Gleeson as an unstable and menacing presence in Conor McPherson’s stellar The Night Alive.

Given all of that, plus the fact that it was by Enda Walsh (whose work on Hunger and the Broadway adaptation of Once I appreciated so much), I was so looking forward to this evening. I wanted it all to work and be excellent. I was even anticipating making a mad dash when it was all over and legging it to the stage door in the hopes of a sighting of Papa Gleeson and the boys as they headed out after their first show.

But, really, what the heck was all that last night?

I’m sure there’ll be reviews shortly with theater academics talking about meta this and pomo that, but for me, it was just a baffling evening.

You have a father and his two sons, all originally from Cork, now holed up in a London council flat, barricaded in against the threatening world (only one boy is allowed out to do the shopping at Tesco), and together they re-enact a lengthy and meandering tale of what happened in the lead-up to their departure from Cork for the UK, complete with a soundtrack of Toora Loora Loora and A Nation Once Again. Initially, there’s quite a lot of laughter at the slapstick of the father-son acting triumvirate playing a father-son triumvirate acting on stage. (Contributed to – in no small part – by the tall, slim and pale Domhnall in a variety of wigs and frocks “playing all the ladies” as he almost moons the audience, with his skirts caught up in the waistband at the back of his Y-fronts).

But at some point, you do wonder why this is all happening, and by Act II, the repetition of the farce begins to grow stale and gets in the way of whatever must be behind all of that.

The father, we see clearly in Act II, is boorish, abusive – right, fine, I got that – but the sons, the terrified, brainwashed sons, going along with this repetitive stress exercise every day of their lives…you barely get enough of a whiff of the wounded souls that they seem to be, when you could begin to care for what happens to them, but before you can, it’s back to all the hijinks.

Some of what the play hints at – the lives of Irish immigrants in London, questions of identity, issues of messed-up parenting – might have been helped by setting the play in a time period (say, the 1960s or 1970s), because some of those things seem harder to accept in the year 2015 when Ryan Air has been flying people on the cheap for three decades and everyone can stay in touch with the folks back home (be it Cork or Lagos) via Skype on their mobile phone.

Brendan Gleeson was sweating profusely by the intermission and if the trio manage to keep up this pace over the next 30 days, they’ll all be in fantastic shape by February because there is a helluva lot of manic coming and going for all but maybe 20 minutes of the play. But so much frottage, for what?

My date for the evening left after the interval, complaining about the lack of projection by the trio, the impenetrability of the play, and declaring the whole thing “shite” before heading home early, not even curious to see the denouement in Act II.

And me, after the standing ovation for the cast and the two curtain calls, I tucked the programme into my bag and headed home, glancing down Sycamore Street at the deserted stage door.


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